As Senator Mitch McConnell, an outspoken opponent of regulating campaign spending, has conceded, trying to put limits on political donations is not easy. In McConnell’s words, it’s “like putting a rock on Jell-O. It oozes out some other place.” But if it was difficult before the Supreme Court’s decision this week in McCutcheon v.FEC, it is likely to be impossible now. It was precisely to address the possibility that wealthy people might try to circumvent restrictions on political contributions that Congress not only limited how much money individuals can directly give to political candidates, but also capped the total amount they can donate to all candidates in any election cycle. The Court’s most recent decision, by invalidating all aggregate limits on donations, has vastly increased the amount of Jell-O that campaign finance laws now must contend with. And still more disturbingly, the decision’s rationale invites further challenges to Congressional limits on campaign spending. When this Court gets through, there may be no rock left at all—only Jell-O.
For the vast majority of Americans, the rules were hardly onerous before: it must be nice to have so much money that you find it constraining to be told you can only donate $123,200—or more than twice the annual income of a median US household—per election cycle to your preferred candidates. But for those who do bridle at such constraints, the Court has now recognized a constitutional right to spend much more, so that you are in fact free to donate millions of dollars to candidates, party committees, and PAC’s each election. (And that’s on top of a right to spend unlimited amounts on uncoordinated, independent support for your favorite candidates). Shaun McCutcheon, the man who challenged the $123,200 restriction and prevailed in the Supreme Court, must be laughing all the way to the halls of Congress.
In McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court’s conservative majority once again vindicated the rights of the rich and mighty to spend as much as they want on political campaigns, overturning Congress’s efforts to limit the distorting influence of money. The Court did so by the same 5-4 vote by which it has decided every campaign finance case since the appointments of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Through these decisions, those with inordinate wealth, like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, have been freed to spend their money to get the candidates who best represent their interests elected, while the rest of us are relegated to the sidelines. American democracy may be predicated, as a formal matter, on a guarantee of one person, one vote. But these days, the American system seems to be closer to one dollar, one vote.