Money talks, the old saying goes, but that doesn't mean money spent on political campaigns has to enjoy the full free-speech protections of the First Amendment. Without sensible limits on political spending, the power of elites grows and plutocracy beckons.
But that was the path the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court set the nation upon in 2011 with its infamous decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
With a disdainful disregard for precedent and a hopeless naivete about the dangers of corruption, the court established the troubling theory that corporations and unions spending money on political campaigns had First Amendment rights that were comparable to the rights of flesh-and-blood Americans. The results were predictable -- the floodgates were partly opened and the money came flooding in.
Here we go again. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought by a wealthy Alabama businessman, Shaun McCutcheon, and the Republican National Committee, who want to be freed from some of the restraints imposed by federal law on individuals contributing to political candidates. The Supreme Court upheld the contribution limits in 1976.
This is the second shoe to drop in the Citizens United case, which did not deal with this part of campaign funding. This time, on First Amendment grounds, the plaintiffs seek to overturn the overall limits on what an individual can spend on federal candidates in a two-year election cycle -- $123,200 total, including a cap of $48,600 in contributions to candidates and up to $74,600 on political parties. The law's $2,600 cap on contributions to one candidate is not at issue in the case.
Yet the justices in their questioning seem to be coming from their usual ideological quarters, meaning that another bad decision affecting ordinary Americans is likely. As President Barack Obama rightly warned, this case could go even further than Citizens United. "It would say anything goes: there are no rules in terms of how to finance campaigns," he said.
The nation has many problems, but too little money in elections is not one of them. Can't just one justice in the Citizens United majority have second thoughts after that bitter experience?
America has the best Congress money can buy -- and look how that has worked out.
First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM