January 21, 2010 was a pretty awful day for democracy. On that hallowed day, our Supreme Court handed down their decision on Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Committee, a ruling that opened the floodgates for corporate money in political campaigns. The Supremes (no, not these Supremes, although they go about as far back) said that political contributions were a form of free speech, and that the FEC couldn’t restrict the amount of money a corporation (which is defined for legal purposes as a person) spent independently on a campaign, since that would be restricting their free speech. This decision was denounced by many Americans who reasoned that money is not speech and corporations are not people. Pretty simple, right?
But then came April 2, 2014. The SCOTUS handed down the decision for McCutcheon vs. Federal Elections Committee, which takes everything bad about Citizens United and makes it 500,000 times worse (approximately). While Citizens United struck down corporate contribution limits, McCutcheon removed the aggregate cap that individuals can spend directly on an election. This means that while the $2,600 maximum that an individual can donate to a single candidate remains in effect, the overall cap of $123,200 is removed.
The court was divided in classic 5-4 style, identical to their vote on Citizens United 4 years ago. The conservatives (Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and swing vote Kennedy) argued that the cap on direct individual donations doesn’t prevent corruption and is essentially meaningless, while the liberals (Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) dissented. In a rare and powerful display of significance, Justice Breyer read his dissenting opinion from the bench on the day of the decision. His blistering opinion stated that this decision “eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”
In the expensive and polarized political landscape of today, the McCutcheon decision is incredibly relevant and holds major repercussions for future elections. Taken together, Citizens United and McCutcheon create major loopholes where donors can funnel millions of dollars to parties or campaigns.
The extent of the influence that the money has on elections is questionable. Karl Rove’s Crossroads PAC and nonprofit spent a combined $400,000,000 on the 2012 election, more than even the RNC. The flush-with-cash PAC and nonprofit saw 1% and 14% success rates, respectively.
Overall, however, it’s undeniable that McCutcheon will add a new dimension to our nation’s already questionable and porous campaign finance laws. Look to the 2014 midterms and 2016 general elections to see how the latest influx of money will affect your elections. In light of Citizens United, McCutcheon, and a host of other campaign finance laws, it’s important to know that the United States government is of the people, by the people, and for the people; not of the millionaires, by the 1%, and for the corporations. Our Supreme Court would do well to remember that.
This blog post was written by former Bus Intern Isabella Fuentes, Junior extraordinaire at Ingraham High School in Seattle.