THE SANTA CLARA
October 17, 2013
Here we go again.
Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission. The case revolves around whether there should be limits on how much money a person can donate to a single candidate or if limiting the total-per-election cycle violates the First Amendment.
Court watchers have correctly dubbed this the biggest campaign finance case since Citizens United, which in 2010 famously made “super PACs,” political action committees, open to unlimited donations. The key difference is that, by federal law, super PACs cannot communicate or coordinate with a candidate’s campaign team. McCutcheon could allow for unlimited, direct donations to the candidates.
Like all campaign finance cases, the issue comes down to whether money is considered speech. I have no doubt that it often is. A political donation is an implicit declaration of support, the financial equivalent of an endorsement.
The problem is that those with the most to gain from cases such as Citizens United and McCutcheon are the ones that care about business, not candidates.
Consider California’s 2012 U.S. Senate race. Defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corporation donated to both major candidates.
That’s not a declarative statement of support. It was a company hedging their bets so its lobbyists would have influence no matter who walked away the victor.
Money has a tangible effect on the outcomes of elections. A powerful individual can fully endorse and campaign hard for someone, but it is difficult to determine whether that actually moves the polls.
Donating a certain amount of cash, however, means that campaigns can now afford so many more yard signs, staff hours and television advertisements. All these things further spread the candidate’s message, making voters more informed and often more likely to vote.
This creates a powerful relationship between candidate and donor that is quid pro quo in all but name. The best threat a lobbyist has is that come next election, they’ll take their cash somewhere else.
Given all this, why should this First Amendment right be absolute when all others are not? Our country thrives on free speech, of course, but there are practical limits to that speech when in the interest of society. Public schools can’t promote religious prayer and people can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
Keeping a fair but solid limit on campaign donations is a strong way to protect against the risk of corruption and favoritism.
Another way is public financing, but it has always had an inherent flaw: not keeping up with the private donations a candidate could raise. This was why President Barack Obama became the first major presidential candidate to opt out of the public financing system since it was created in 1974.
However, there might be a way.
Around the same time as Citizens United, the Supreme Court — by 5-4 vote — declared Arizona’s public financing system unconstitutional. The system gave an initial amount of money to a political candidate, but then added to the coffers if the candidate’s opponent had outraised them privately to make up the gap.
Don’t take much stock in the actual ruling. Justice Elena Kagan so strongly disagreed that she referred to the majority opinion in her dissent as “pure chutzpah.”
This system took out any reason a candidate had for private funding. A privately funded candidate, after all, might feel beholden to the small circle of large donors. A publicly funded candidate, though, will only be beholden to the taxpayers — which they should be anyway.
Maybe I’m an optimist, but I firmly believe most people in public office want to do good for their country. A strong public financing system modeled off of Arizona’s would make that easier. It’s a public expense, yes, but like education, it’s an investment in our future.
The payoff? Politicians we can trust and the long overdue castration of the lobbying industry.
In many ways, the U.S. is founded on the principle of equality. That includes an opportunity for an equal voice in the political process, which is impossible if one’s voice includes his or her bank balance.
We all matter. We should all say so.
Jonathan Tomczak is a senior political science and history double major and editor of the Opinion section.