Whomever you blame for the mess in Washington that has shut down the government, the big money that dominates politics is a culprit. The Affordable Care Act, which drives Republicans crazy, is loaded with provisions pushed by special interests that are major campaign donors. The tea party House Republicans who have forced the shutdown, and the tea party candidates threatening primary challenges to GOP incumbents who dont follow the party line, owe their campaign warchests to big-donor contributions and wealthy PACs.
Those concerned about all the money sloshing around in American politics will want to pay attention today, when the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a case that could open the campaign-financing spigot even wider.
The court has been asked to strike down restrictions on how much a person can contribute in each two-year election cycle (now limited to $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political parties and political action committees, for a $123,200 total). Supporters of the limits — enacted in the mid-1970s after Watergate — contend these prevent partisan politics from being dependent on high-dollar donors. They say Congress has had the authority to regulate contributions at least since the court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which said the public has a compelling interest in limiting the corrupting influence of money.
However the court rules, this will be the biggest campaign-finance case since its 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which led to massive spending by outside groups. Some are calling it a second Citizens United.
Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee have challenged the aggregate limits, or caps, that citizens can contribute — not the $2,600 limit donors can make to individual candidates in primary and general elections.
McCutcheon agrees that large contributions from one source could be a corrupting influence. But the caps limit freedom of expression, he says, contending it doesn't make sense that wealthy donors like him can give the maximum legal contribution only to a certain number of federal candidates.
Friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed on behalf of McCutcheon by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the National Republican Senatorial and Congressional Committees and the Tea Party Leadership Fund, which calls the caps "arbitrary."
Those supporting the caps include Common Cause and Americans for Campaign Reform, which argues that the limits encourage "ordinary citizens" to get involved in the political process. How can someone giving a couple of hundred bucks be heard over those giving millions?
If the high court follows the same reasoning it did in Citizens United and strikes down the caps, the result inevitably will be more cash in the system. Sounds like a recipe for making the current dysfunction in Washington even worse.