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Issue of the Week: The Supreme Court Rules for the 1%

Apr. 9, 2014
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If you believe in representative democracy, then last week was pretty brutal. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down aggregate campaign limits to federal candidates, which inevitably will do away with Wisconsin’s limits on contributions to state candidates. Prior to last week’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision, donors could give up to $2,600 to individual federal candidates; contributions to candidates and political parties and committees were capped at $123,200 total. Now, that $123,200 cap is history, which means that wealthy donors can be even more influential in campaigns—as if they didn’t already have enough avenues for funneling money into elections, thanks to prior Supreme Court decisions during the Chief Justice John Roberts era.

Wisconsin has a similar cap on total donations to state candidates, $10,000 per calendar year, whether you’re donating it all to one candidate or spreading it among a host of candidates. That cap is being challenged in federal court by a wealthy Republican who’s being represented by the Bradley Foundation-backed Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. It doesn’t seem to have much of a chance of surviving in the wake of the McCutcheon decision. 

The McCutcheon decision is yet another court ruling that chips away at our democracy. In the past, candidates did old-fashioned retail campaigning where they met face to face with voters to discuss issues and where $25 and $50 checks from average voters were important. Today candidates court the wealthiest of the special interest donors who can bankroll their entire campaigns and buy unlimited advertising, much of it negative attack ads, instead of listening to the needs of their constituents. Once elected, one guess who the policy makers are listening to?  This is why we see politicians voting against the interests of their constituents and in favor of the special interests. They know, come the next election, they can have their special-interest friends buy the negative ads to destroy their opponents.

Very few of us are interested in—or capable of—donating more than these time-honored caps. But all of us will feel the impact directly and indirectly, as candidates line up to make promises to a small pool of wealthy donors so they can win an election. Witness the Las Vegas spectacle created at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting by ultra-right-wing billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who held a conservative beauty pageant for Republican presidential wannabes—Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker included. Adelson didn’t attend Walker’s speech and Walker admits that he doesn’t know anything about Israel, Adelson’s No. 1 issue. But there was Walker, shamelessly trying to ingratiate himself with a billionaire who can make or break a Republican candidate.

Campaign finance regulations aren’t perfect, but no policies are perfect—especially in an ever-changing world—but good campaign finance laws can certainly limit the power of the special interest groups. That’s why 13 Wisconsin communities—including Shorewood, Waukesha, Wauwatosa and Whitefish Bay—approved pro-democracy, anti-Citizens United advisory referenda last week that reaffirm voters’ rights over corporate influence in elections. Too bad the Supreme Court isn’t listening.


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