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McCutcheon Redefines Corruption

April 4, 2014  • Dan Glickman

The Supreme Court’s decision yesterday in the McCutcheon case was another huge blow to American democracy. With this decision, the US no longer has any meaningful way of controlling the flow of money into politics. Not a great achievement for the nation that revived democracy as a legitimate form of government and a country which prides itself on leadership based on basic principles like equality and freedom.

Since a 1976 court ruling in the case of Buckley v. Valeo individual spending in elections was capped in the name of preventing corruption. Additionally, aggregate contribution limits were upheld as a way to ensure that campaign donors did not circumvent the regulations designed to protect against corruption by rerouting money through other entities. Yesterday’s decision did away with these aggregate spending limits, declaring them to be a violation of the First Amendment.

Some may view this as a small change, but the reality is that this decision will likely be used to challenge and overturn what little is left of campaign finance law. The crucial aspect of this ruling, with far-reaching implications, is that it reimagines previous court rulings on what constitutes corruption. The majority opinion says that corruption is now only defined as quid pro quo money for results; that is to say corruption in their view is limited exclusively to bribery. If a donor gives a suitcase of cash to a legislator for a specific result then that is corruption, but nothing else constitutes corruption. In the majority’s view, buying access to politicians by making large campaign contributions — for example, getting one-on-one meetings with legislators or having outsized influence over their policy decisions — is not corruption at all. In fact, it is to be expected!

Previous court rulings have taken a much broader view of corruption to include anything that breaks the constitutionally necessary chain of communication between the people and their representatives in government. As Justice Breyer says in his dissenting opinion, “Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard… a free marketplace of ideas loses its point.”

What we have here is a fundamental disagreement over the purpose and meaning of the First Amendment. Is it simply about the ability to spend money, or is it about having a real, authentic political discourse in a democratic society? Representatives, according to our founding documents, are supposed to be beholden to their voting constituents who send them to Congress. But the money they raise isn’t usually coming from the people they represent. Yet in the majority opinion it is protected free speech for non-constituents to buy meetings and influence with campaign donations, and that such actions are not corrupting.

Since the founding of the Republic, Americans have been known for our commitment to a strong and fair democracy. It saddens me to see the perversion of our principles of free expression lead to a political system where a few people with a lot of money purchase power and influence and drown out the voices of millions of citizens. The American people, across party lines, recognize that all this money is bad for our government and bad for the national interest. Unless we act to rein this in, we will have a government that is incapable of representing its people and jeopardizes our role as a world leader.

Dan Glickman is the executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program and former US Secretary of AgricultureThe Aspen Program was established in 1983 and is a nongovernmental, nonpartisan educational program for members of the United States Congress.