NORMAN — Creating more distrust and cynicism of American politics wouldn’t be difficult today. We would need only to remove all restrictions on how much money wealthy donors can provide elected officials.
The U.S. Supreme Court may be deciding just that as it considers a challenge to campaign finance laws that limit how much individuals may donate, in total, to candidates for federal office.
Critics of removing the cap say it will legalize bribery, while proponents contend the government shouldn’t limit the free speech of donors who want to talk with their money.
Supreme Court observers say the justices may be leaning in the direction of removing the restrictions given their ruling in January 2010 to erase limits on how much corporations and unions can spend on independent groups influencing elections. Two years later, those parties and groups poured $5.2 billion into campaigns.
The case argued before the court this week started with an Alabama businessman, Shaun McCutcheon, with a zeal for supporting conservative candidates. He wanted to donate the maximum amount to a number of congressional candidates. But he was limited to 16 candidates because he hit the cap on donations that any individual may make in a two-year election cycle — $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to parties.
McCutcheon has allies in the Republican National Committee and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A National Public Radio report says they're asking the court to approve a campaign finance standard that would likely remove all limits - individual and aggregate.
Of course, after the court's decision in the Citizens United case, McCutcheon can contribute as much money as he wants to groups that in turn promote particular candidates. So, one might argue, he's not really restricted, though he says he can be more effective by giving money directly to candidates.
That's just the kind of appearance of corruption — let alone actual corruption — that U.S. campaign finance laws were designed to prevent. The laws date to 1974, when they were crafted in response to the Watergate scandal. They were challenged on similar grounds two years later and at other points, but by and large they were upheld until three years ago.
The Court’s narrow 5-4 decision then suggests the upcoming decision will be close, as well, with conservatives favoring no limits and liberals supporting current laws.
For the past 40 years the president, Congress and the courts have let campaign finance restrictions stand as legitimate safeguards against corrupting American democracy. In the meantime, the influence of money has only grown. A decision that allows more money to flow directly to candidates will be a bigger step toward enabling corruption in a system many Americans feel is already stacked against them.