The most important event today likely wasn’t the president hypocritically crying wolf about the sequester he insisted upon. It is not NBC News/MSNBC yet again throwing journalistic seriousness to the wind (this time by hiring David Axelrod, who was instrumental in getting the president elected twice but who will now give us his independent and unvarnished analysis?!). It is the Supreme Court’s granting review in McCutcheon v. FEC.
The case is the next logical step in the series of campaign finance cases. At issue is whether the federal election donation dollar limits ($2,500 to a single candidate per race and $117,000 for a two-year period, including $46,200 for political candidates and $70,800 to political committees and PACs). The Supreme Court left open in the Citizens United case the potential for striking down limits on contributions as opposed to spending limits.
In a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the judges held that although there was a legitimate interest in preventing corruption, “contributing a large amount of money does not ipso facto implicate the government’s anticorruption interest.” Nevertheless, the court upheld the limits. As an aside the lower court judges noted, “Plaintiffs raise the troubling possibility that Citizens United undermined the entire contribution limits scheme, but whether that case will ultimately spur a new evaluation of Buckley is a question for the Supreme Court, not us.” And now it will.
There is a good argument that in fact the campaign contribution limits to candidates and committees are now the source of much of what ails the political process. Rather than the major source of funding, political parties have shrunken in influence and been upstaged by third-party groups with no dollar limits on their expenditures. If you want to know why politics has become more polarizing and fringe candidates can hang on in races, look no further than a system in which parties, traditionally moderating and vetting entities, have been diminished in importance. For all the high-minded talk, McCain-Feingold, which put shackles on parties, has promoted extremism, lack of transparency and corruption. If this is what the Supreme Court is driving at we may witness a complete shake-up (or rather, another one) of the way campaigns are financed.
Those who are really interested in a robust political system, but one in which moderation and transparency are encouraged, should root for the dollar limits to be struck down.