The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 decision in the matter of McCutheon et al v. Federal Elections Commission complies with the view that attempts to interfere in the electoral process in ways not specified by the Constitution must be carefully screened to insure that they do not violate the First Amendment.
Chief Justice Roberts delivered the decision, noting that corruption would be held in check by limiting how large a single donation could be. The ruling indicates that the ceilings on the total amounts contributed each election cycle would not undermine that goal.
In its 5-4 decision, the Court held that “The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption…It may not, however, regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”
That part of the decision—stressing that campaign regulations cannot be used to enhance the influence of some at the expense of others-- is of extraordinary importance. Although the McCutheon case involves the question of aggregate limits on individual political contributions, that part of the decision may be seen as a cautionary note that the growing environment at the federal, state and local levels of campaign regulation may be violative of free speech rights.
Research indicates that campaign regulation efforts have not achieved the goal of reducing the influence of money in politics. A study by the CATO institute found that “…there is no serious evidence that campaign finance regulation has achieved or will achieve its goals of reducing the influence of money, opening up the political system, and lowering the cost of campaigns. Indeed, since the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act, spending has risen sharply, the number of political action committees and the amount of PAC spending are up, and incumbents have increased both their election rate and the rate at which they outspend their challengers.”
campaign regulation has been abused in a number of ways. In some localities, local Campaign Finance Boards have used their authority to heavily influence the outcome of elections and enhance the power of political bosses. The ability to do this is especially prevalent in jurisdictions where taxpayer funds are provided to help finance campaigns.
Recent decisions of the Supreme Court—including both the McCutcheon case and Citizens United—have taken positions protective of the First Amendment.
The ban on any contributions from foreign sources, not part of the McCutheon case, continues. Scandals involving contributions from foreign sources have affected both the Clinton and Obama campaigns.
According to a Washington Times report the web site Obama.com, owned by a China-based American business man, which attracted an overwhelming majority of foreigners to it, routed visitors to a donation site. Other published reports have revealed that an Obama web site accepted donations from abroad, while a similar Romney site rejected similar foreign donations.
Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign was also linked to a serious foreign contribution scandal. Approximately $100,000 from China’s military was funneled to the Democrat campaign in the summer of 1996 by the daughter of a top general in the People’s Liberation Army, General Liu Huaqing. The funds were not returned until after an investigation revealed the illegal activity.
Both the limits themselves, and the complicated system of reporting under federal, state and local campaign finance regulations, can be seen as favoring “party-boss” backed candidates who have both access to the specialized skills necessary to timely provide mandated filings as well as access to the type of fund-raising abilities that comply with the regulations.