The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging the current limits on the amount of money an individual can contribute to political campaigns. If the Court's decision in Citizens United--which effectively eliminated limits on corporate contributions--provides any hint as to how this new case will be decided, we can expect that laws limiting contributions will be severely weakened, if not eliminated outright.
I deplore the influence of money on politics, but given the logic--or "logic"--employed by the Supreme Court in previous cases, I see no hope for any other outcome. Previous decisions have built upon the premise that money equals speech, so any restrictions on a person's ability to spend his or her own money amount to unconstitutional restrictions on one's freedom of speech. Money, of course, does not equal speech: The fact that candidates cannot reasonably expect to communicate effectively in our current political atmosphere unless they have access to large amounts of cash suggests that money facilitates speech, but facilitation is not identity. Money should more properly be considered an amplifier of speech: It's a microphone. And clearly, it should be illegal for a private citizen to provide the candidate of his choice with an overabundance of microphones.
Wait, I just confused myself.
Should it be illegal for a private citizen to provide his or her favored candidate with an overabundance of microphones? After all, microphones themselves are not illegal. If we assume (naively, of course, but let me go with this for a moment) that donors simply want to enrich the body politic by supporting people that they (the donors) feel would best serve the public--that, in other words, they are motivated solely by a sense of public-spiritedness--why accept laws that prevent such expressions of citizenship?
Of course, we are not so naive as to believe that sizable donations are given purely out of a sense of citizenship. Common citizens worry that one-percenters who contribute small (or not so small) fortunes to political actors expect something in return--access, at the very least, if not outright sycophancy. And it is out of this fear that reform-minded legislators have imposed contribution limits.
Again, if money (under our current judicial regime) equals speech, then limitations on such speech almost of necessity will be struck down. But assume for the moment that the justices step away from this false equivalency: Would it then be constitutional to impose contribution limits?
Short answer: Yes.
I can't help but think, though, that we will never solve the problem of undue influence until we approach the question from another angle. Once the debate becomes about spending limits, the fundamental battle has already been lost.
Current law states that the maximum contribution one can make to a federal candidate in an election cycle is $2,500: I suppose the thinking is that a candidate would not be unduly influenced by a donation of $2,500 (or less). I don't know about you, but, to me, $2,500 is a sizable chunk of change. At any rate, what is it about $2,500 that divides respectability from corruption? Someone who donates $2,499 is a concerned citizen, but someone who gives $2,501 is the guy in the trenchcoat demanding that Higgins take a dive in the 6th? Arbitrariness is no hallmark of solid legislation. Once we acknowledge that money is a corrupting influence, it seems disingenuous to haggle over an "acceptable" amount of corruption.
We need to change the discussion. If people truly want to eliminate the corrupting influence of money on politics, there surely are ways this can be done without running afoul of constitutional rights or establishing arbitrary limits that defy common sense. Public financing of political campaigns would be a good place to start. A mandated amount of television airtime devoted to public affairs/political broadcasting--with strict enforcement of a "fairness doctrine"--would also help.
If individuals truly want to donate to political campaigns, they should have every right to do so--but how about just mandating that ALL donations go into one gigantic public pool to be distributed equally among all candidates (obviously, there would need to be a way to establish qualifications for receiving these funds, but that's a logistical hurdle to work out later)? At the very least, all candidates for public office should be required to disclose the names of each and every individual contributor--and corporate donors--whether for-profit or non-profit--should similarly be required to reveal the names of all their funders, as well.
Of course, all these proposals presuppose that anyone in a position of authority truly wants to eliminate--or at least reduce--the influence of money on politics.
So, y'know, never mind.