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Supreme Court: Money corrupts in politics, but we can live with that

No surprise here, but the Supreme Court on Wednesday invalidated aggregate campaign contribution limits in the closely watched case McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission. 

As we reported in October, in connection with the oral arguments in the case, Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama business owner, objected to federal rules limiting any one campaign contributor to $123,000 in total spending to political candidates and election committees during any two-year election cycle.

A federal district court had observed that removing the aggregate limit but preserving per-candidate and per-party limits, as the Supreme Court did in Wednesday's 5-4 ruling, would allow an individual to spread up to $3.5 million around.

The court majority, all conservative justices led by Chief Justice John Roberts, agreed that limiting the inflow of cash into campaigns to stem corruption is a reasonable governmental goal. But they defined "corruption" narrowly, as direct quid pro quo trading of specific favors for contributions, and the appearance of quid pro quo deals. Anything broader is out of bounds: "No matter how desirable it may seem, it is not an acceptable governmental objective to 'level the playing field,' or to 'level electoral opportunities,' or to 'equaliz[e] the financial resources of candidates,'" Roberts wrote.

Bizarrely, the majority concluded that the aggregate limits effectively eliminated the likelihood of quid pro quo arrangements. That's because candidates can't distinguish the individual sources of the tsunami of cash rolling into their coffers from aggregated campaign chests like PACs and other joint campaign committees. 

"It is hard to see how a candidate today could receive a 'massive amount ... of money' that could be traced back to a particular contributor," Roberts wrote, saying that this eliminates the threat that "an individual who spends large sums may garner 'influence over or access to' elected officials or political parties." 

Back in 1935, Franklin Roosevelt derided the Supreme Court's cramped definition of interstate commerce, which it used to overturn a New Deal law regulating business, as a relic of "the horse and buggy age." This court's narrow definition of political corruption has the same flavor.

The majority pretends that unless a donor asks for and receives some specific favor, no bigger than can be tied up in a gift box, then there's no corruption that can be reached by campaign law. The notion that an unrelenting torrent of money can suborn the entire political process doesn't seem to occur to Chief Roberts.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the minority, didn't accept this charade. He saw that the loophole opened by the majority "eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve." 

The corruption that should concern the court, Breyer wrote, is that which undermines "the integrity of our public governmental institutions."

It's not only the 1st Amendment right to be heard, but also the 1st Amendment right not to be drowned out that are at issue, he wrote:

"The First Amendment advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.... Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard." 

For proof, he needed to go no further than the majority opinion.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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