Compass: Court's ruling on campaign money erodes democracy

In his recent opinion in the case of McCutcheon v. FEC, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a four member plurality of the U.S. Supreme Court, expressed a fundamentally flawed understanding of the real nature of politics in the United States. Building on the court's notorious decision in the Citizen's United case, Roberts held that the only possible interest that Congress could legitimately have to justify placing aggregate limits on each voter's campaign contributions is the interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption.

What is quid pro quo corruption? If a politician is recorded on tape saying that he will support a particular bill if he gets a campaign donation, accepts the campaign donation and then votes for the bill, he is guilty of quid pro quo corruption.

But if a politician takes millions of dollars in campaign donations from representatives of a particular industry, and then introduces and passes a bill giving huge subsidies and tax breaks to that industry, written by representatives of that industry, why that is just fine and not corrupt at all according to the decision written by Roberts. Fine, that is, as long as the politician does not actually promise to promote the bill in exchange for the donation.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, politicians spend huge amounts of their time dialing potential donors for dollars. It takes massive amounts of money to run a successful statewide or national campaign. The politician's job depends upon successful money raising efforts. So politicians spend lots and lots of time calling up wealthy individuals and asking them for donations. Many of those wealthy individuals do make donations when asked.

If you ask the politicians or the donors, they will all deny that the donors are getting anything of value in exchange for their donations. Those claims strain credulity.

Corporations, by law, are committed to the single goal of maximizing shareholder value. Executives who gave away large amounts of corporate money without getting anything in return would soon face a shareholder revolt. Many of the individual donors are highly political persons who strongly support particular political ideologies.

In the world of real politics, the executives, the shareholders, the politicians and the individual donors all know that the politician must support policies favorable to the donors in order to get donations.

The entire system of large private campaign donations is corrupting and serves to weed out all candidates who do not support the interests of the large donors.

While Roberts tries to frame his decision as being protective of free speech, he is simply wrong. Money is not the same as speech. If you think it is, try to pay your gas bill with a speech next month.

The cumulative limits struck down by the court are content neutral, that is, they apply to everyone and do not favor any one message over another. They are reasonably tailored to limit the corrupting effects that large campaign donations have on elections. They do not stop anyone from speaking out or expressing their opinions. They simply place a reasonable limit on the total amount of money that any one person may donate to candidates in a particular election so that the corrupting influence of money is limited.

The dissenting four justices got it right when they wrote in the McCutcheon case "today's decision 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."

Since a narrow majority of the Supreme Court erred, we the people must exercise our supreme authority to guide them with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution clarifying that money is not speech, thereby empowering our duly elected representatives to enact campaign finance laws that protect the integrity of our democracy.

Sharman Haley is a retired professor of public policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Anchorage chair of Move to Amend.