Influence, Affluence, and the First Amendment

Played Dungeons & Dragons in high school.  Picked on by jocks.

The Court’s ruling in the McCutcheon v. FEC case was the right decision. At issue was whether or not Americans have a right to spend as much of their own money as they see fit to support favored political candidates and parties. In a 5 to 4 decision the Supreme Court found that Americans do have that right under the First Amendment.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, federal law placed two types of restrictions on Americans. The first restriction limits how much you can give directly to political candidates and political parties. The restriction is based on the idea that no individual should have excessive influence with any particular candidate or party. The idea is to prevent a single donor from bankrolling an entire campaign. This restriction is still federal law and was not immediately impacted by the McCutcheon case.

The recent court case struck down the second type of restriction – a limit on the aggregate amount of money you could give during an election cycle. Under this part of the law, Americans were limited to contributing no more than $123,200 per election cycle. If you had that much to give, and wanted to give it, you’d have to figure out how to divvy up the money among the parties and people you wanted to support. It’s a little like having a $500 budget for Christmas gifts with a limit of $100 per person. You’d have to figure out how to buy gifts for all 12 members of your family. You could spend a lot on five family members, or a little on all 12 members.

The Court ruled that this overall aggregate limit – by restricting an individual’s right to expression in the political process – was unconstitutional. That is, if a citizen feels strongly about politics and wants to spend millions of dollars to express their opinions in the political process, they have that right. The restrictions on how much you can give each candidate is still in place, but the aggregate limit has been removed. It’s like the $100 Christmas gift limit per family member still stands, but I’m no longer restricted to a $500 spending limit. If I wanted to, I could now give each of my 12 family member a $100 gift!

Liberals would prefer a system which reduces the influence of money, but if the government gets into the business of determining who should have influence it creates a slippery slope. Political influence isn’t just a function of money. Intelligence, celebrity, the ability to write well, work ethic, passion, time, age, access to a public platform such as a newspaper column, radio show, or television program, and good looks, are just a few things that allow a person to have influence. Money is just one tool, and maybe one that compensates for lack of these other things.

If the government can tell people with money that they can’t spend it to support political causes, then what stops them from telling newspapers that they can’t endorse candidates, or celebrities from lending their fame to voter drives, or talk radio for encouraging people to vote against a candidate?

Chief Justice Roberts was right when he said that there are many obnoxious aspects of expression that are protected by the First Amendment. Why shouldn’t money be one of them? Opposition to money in politics is based more on opposition to what these people with money have to say rather than the fear that they might have “influence.”

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