April 2
AFP photo/Karen Bleier
AFP photo/Karen Bleier

Continuing its steady and unrelenting assault on the laws that limit the ability of wealthy Americans to influence the course of electoral campaigns, the Supreme Court today declared that regulations that limit the aggregate amount donors can give to electoral campaigns in a single election cycle are unconstitutional. This is a campaign finance limit you probably haven’t thought much about, and it’s one that affects a relatively small number of donors (at least up until now).

It’s too early to tell how much the removal of this limit will alter the electoral landscape. But the implication is clear. The five conservative justices on the Supreme Court seem determined to dismantle the entire edifice of campaign finance law.

Today’s ruling is a small but important step on the road to the ultimate victory for those who would like to make it possible to literally buy any politician you wish: the removal of all limits on contributions to candidates. That’s the end game, and that’s where this Court is headed.

There’s a nice explainer of what was at issue in this case here, and I’ll let the Post’s Aaron Blake explain what the Court did today:

In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that individuals should be able to give the maximum per-candidate and per-party contributions to as many party committees, presidential and congressional candidates as they want. Under the current limits, individuals could give no more than $123,000 in total and $48,600 to candidates for the 2013-2014 election cycle.

The court did not strike down contribution limits per candidate (now $2,600) and per party committee (now $32,400), but the decision does overturn previous rules that restricted individuals from giving those maximum donations to dozens of candidates and several party committees.

This meant that wealthy donors would have to be more selective about whom they contributed to — contributing to House Democrats’ campaign committee, for instance, but not Senate Democrats’.

This ruling could change things in a number of ways. On one hand, it could mean nothing more than that a few rich people would decide to contribute not to ten or twenty campaigns in a cycle, but to 30 or 40. That would certainly increase their influence, but not all that dramatically. On the other hand, it could also mean that a billionaire could max out to all 435 of a party’s House candidates and all 33 of its Senate candidates. Do you think that party’s officials might be particularly interested in what that donor had to say about policy?

Let’s put this in some context. Here are the Roberts Court’s major campaign finance rulings in the last few years:

  • 2007: FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life. The Court ruled that corporations could air ads discussing candidates in the weeks before election day.
  • 2008: Davis v. FEC. The Court struck down the “Millionaires Amendment” to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which raised the contribution limit for candidates facing self-financed opponents.
  • 2010: Citizens United v. FEC. The Court ruled that corporations and unions can spend as much as they want on campaigns, giving birth to the super PAC.
  • 2011: Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s FreedomClub PAC v. Bennett. The Court struck down Arizona’s public finance system, in which candidates who entered the system got matching funds if they were outspent by privately funded opponents.

Every time this Court has confronted a question of campaign finance, where there is a conflict between the freedom of wealthy donors to do as they wish on one hand and the integrity of the system on the other, it has sided with the wealthy donors. Every time.

The obvious end point of this progression is the law that limits the amount anyone can contribute directly to federal candidates and parties, currently $2,600 to a candidate and $32,400 to a party (these amounts rise with inflation). To be sure, it’s entirely possible that faced with a case challenging those limits, the Court could decide they’ve gone far enough in previous cases and the limits should stay in place. And they could have eliminated them in this case, but chose not too (Clarence Thomas wrote a concurrence indicating that he is ready to do away with those limits). But the five conservative justices haven’t yet met a campaign finance restriction they didn’t want to strike down.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the influence of the super-rich, particularly Charles and David Koch, on elections and the elected officials who run in them. At the moment, people like the Kochs at least have to go to a little trouble if they want to buy a politician — they have to set up a super PAC, then decide how to spend the money in that race. But if the Supreme Court goes the way it has been going, there will be a day not too far from now when the Kochs can just walk in to a senator’s office, hand him a check for $10 million or $20 million, and say, “You belong to us now.” Sure, that sounds like an outlandish scene from a movie. But it could be our future.