Jamie Raskin and Marge Baker Unpack the McCutcheon Case

Two days after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, PFAW Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin and Executive Vice President Marge Baker held a telebriefing with PFAW members to discuss the case – and what Americans can do about it.

Jamie noted that with the fall of the overall, or "aggregate," contribution limits, we are now past the midpoint in right-wing efforts to dismantle our nation's campaign finance laws. We've seen the same five conservative Justices strike down efforts to promote viable public financing of campaigns and open the door to unlimited corporate expenditures to affect elections. Left untouched – so far – are base limits (the cap on the amount you can give to a particular candidate) and laws against coordinating certain political expenditures.

Jamie also criticized the Court's absurdly cramped reading of the First Amendment, such that campaign finance laws can only be justified if they are intended to prevent real or perceived "quid pro quo" corruption, which is essentially bribery. Perhaps the next question for the Roberts Court will be whether any campaign contribution limits can be upheld as long as there are bribery laws on the books.

Marge Baker was also on the call, fielding questions from PFAW members, several of whom had participated in the rallies nationwide that were held on Wednesday in response to the ruling. A couple of major themes kept coming up:

  • Efforts to mitigate these rulings by legislation or regulation and more comprehensive efforts to reverse them completely by constitutional amendment are complementary. As people organize to advocate for an amendment, they also create the political landscape needed to enact the remedial provisions.
  • When you vote for president and senator, you are casting a vote that will determine who sits on our nation's courts. McCutcheon may have been issued this week, but it was set in motion by the elections that allowed those five conservative justices to be nominated and confirmed.
  • The issue is much greater than whether campaign finance laws address "quid pro quo" corruption. The issue is the health of our democracy. When a tiny elite of powerful, super-wealthy individuals have an outsized role in selecting and influencing our elected officials, drowning out the interests of everyone else, this poses a grave danger to our democracy – a danger that Americans around the country are increasingly recognizing and doing something about.

Listen to call here:

Add your voice to the movement to get big money out of our elections here.

For more information on what you can do to help preserve our democracy, check out our Government By the People activist toolkit.



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PFAW

Applying McCutcheon's Logic to Voter ID Laws

The Chief Justice's opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC striking down aggregate campaign contribution limits dismisses several scenarios put forward to describe how funds can be rerouted to bypass the existing base limits on contributions:

The dissent concludes by citing three briefs for the proposition that, even with the aggregate limits in place, individuals "have transferred large sums of money to specific candidates" in excess of the base limits. But the cited sources do not provide any real-world examples of circumvention of the base limits along the lines of the various hypotheticals.

The dearth of FEC prosecutions, according to the dissent, proves only that people are getting away with it. And the violations that surely must be out there elude detection "because in the real world, the methods of achieving circumvention are more subtle and more complex" than the hypothetical examples. This sort of speculation, however, cannot justify the substantial intrusion on First Amendment rights at issue in this case. (emphasis added)

Yet exactly this sort of speculation is routinely used by the far right to justify the substantial intrusion on the right to vote caused by strict photo ID laws. As Hans von Spakovsky and Peter McGinley recently wrote for the Heritage Foundation:

A favorite claim made by those who oppose voter ID is that voter fraud is a rare occurrence. On the surface, this argument may have some appeal, because it is not very often that huge voter fraud conspiracies dominate the national headlines. But, by its very nature, voter fraud is hard to detect.

Unfortunately, despite the absence of evidence of the in-person voter fraud they allegedly are intended to prevent, a number of voter ID laws have been upheld despite their obvious impact on the right to vote.

If only the courts were as solicitous of the right to vote in elections as they are of the right to purchase them. The "Money In / Voters Out" approach to elections has got to stop.

PFAW Foundation

In McCutcheon Decision, Talk of Constituents Seems Out of Place

Chief Justice Roberts caps his opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC by waxing eloquently about the need to ensure that elected officials are responsive to the people. This and other cases have described campaign contributions as a way to promote such responsiveness. But considering that this case is about a non-constituent buying influence in elections across the country, the passage's repeated references to constituents seems strangely out of place:

For the past 40 years, our campaign finance jurisprudence has focused on the need to preserve authority for the Government to combat corruption, without at the same time compromising the political responsiveness at the heart of the democratic process, or allowing the Government to favor some participants in that process over others. As Edmund Burke explained in his famous speech to the electors of Bristol, a representative owes constituents the exercise of his "mature judgment," but judgment informed by "the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents." Constituents have the right to support candidates who share their views and concerns. Representatives are not to follow constituent orders, but can be expected to be cognizant of and responsive to those concerns. Such responsiveness is key to the very concept of self-governance through elected officials.  (emphasis added, internal citations removed)

Shaun McCutcheon – whose contributions are at issue in this case – told the Court that he wanted to make contributions of $1,776 to each of more than two dozen different congressional candidates (as well as to various party committees) during the 2012 election cycle. It seems unlikely that he could have been a constituent of more than two dozen different members of Congress.

Obviously, people have a First Amendment right to participate in congressional races outside of where they live. But a stirring paragraph about political responsiveness to constituents hardly seems appropriate in a case that is all about political responsiveness to non-constituents.

PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court's McCutcheon Decision is Great News for Billionaires

The Supreme Court's McCutcheon opinion, released this morning, is another 5-4 body blow to our democracy. To justify striking down limits that cap aggregate campaign contributions during a single election cycle, the Roberts Court ignores the way the world really works and makes it far more difficult to justify much-needed protections against those who would purchase our elections and elected officials.

Americans are deeply concerned that control of our elections and our government is being usurped by a tiny sliver of extremely wealthy and powerful individuals (and the corporations they control). That is not the democracy that our Constitution established and protects. The enormous impact of money in politics can destroy a democracy, undermining its foundations by disconnecting elected officials from the people they are supposed to serve and eroding the trust of the people in their system of government.

But the Roberts Court today stressed that campaign contributions can be justified under the First Amendment only if they address "quid pro quo" corruption – i.e. bribery – despite contrary pre-Citizens United holdings with a broader and more realistic vision. A democratic system rotting at its core – a government of, by, and for the wealthy – is not corrupt in their eyes.

If a wealthy person gives millions of dollars to a party (distributed to the party's multiple candidates and PACs across the country), he clearly exercises enormous influence over the laws that get passed. What the voters want becomes far less relevant, because it's the billionaire whose money is vital to getting elected. A government where elected officials allow a few plutocrats to have enormous access and influence over their policies is not an indication of a healthy government of, by, and for the people.

As Justice Breyer write in his McCutcheon dissent:

Today a majority of the Court overrules this holding [Buckley's 1976 upholding of aggregate limits]. It is wrong to do so. Its conclusion rests upon its own, not a record-based, view of the facts. Its legal analysis is faulty: It misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake. It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate's campaign. Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm'n, 558 U. S. 310 (2010), 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.

Americans are organizing around the country to restore our democracy in light of Citizens United and other dangerous court opinions. Today's McCutcheon opinion gives us another reason to rally.

Last year, People For the American Way Foundation released an analysis of McCutcheon within the context of the Supreme Court's past rulings on campaign finance.

PFAW Foundation

Open Season for Money in Politics in NYC

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals today opened the door to unlimited super-PAC spending in the New York mayor's race, despite a state law setting an annual cap of $150,000 in political contributions to groups including those making independent expenditures for or against candidates. An entity called New York Progress and Protection PAC has a donor who wants to contribute $200,000 so it can help elect Joseph Lhota mayor. The court ruled that the law is unlikely to survive constitutional scrutiny, so it lifted a hold that had prevented NYPPP from vacuuming in huge amounts of money.

Given the sorry state of the law as set by the Roberts Court, this is not at all surprising. The Second Circuit pointed to Citizens United as compelling this result:

The Supreme Court held in Citizens United v. FEC that the government has no anti-corruption interest in limiting independent expenditures. It follows that a donor to an independent expenditure committee such as NYPPP is even further removed from political candidates and may not be limited in his ability to contribute to such committees.

...

Preventing quid pro quo corruption is the only government interest strong enough to justify restrictions on political speech, see [Citizens United], and the threat of quid pro quo corruption does not arise when individuals make contributions to groups that engage in independent spending on political speech.

The Roberts Court's cramped view of the type of corruption that the American people can protect our electoral system from is at the heart of its crusade against efforts to protect the integrity of our electoral system. As Justice Stevens wrote in his Citizens United dissent:

Corruption operates along a spectrum, and the majority's apparent belief that quid pro quo arrangements can be neatly demarcated from other improper influences does not accord with the theory or reality of politics.

No, the Roberts Court's view doesn't accord with reality, but it does accord with empowering the powerful, especially corporate interests.

PFAW Foundation

What Universe Is the Roberts Court Living In?

During today's oral arguments on the McCutcheon money in politics case, there was an exchange that demonstrated that the conservative Justices live in another universe, and their rulings are based on a view of the world that bears little resemblance to reality. It happened while amicus Sen. Mitch McConnell's attorney was before the bench. Justice Kagan asked a question referring to the staggering amount that one donor would be able to give to one party should the aggregate caps be struck down:

Justice Kagan: So the Speaker, the Majority Leader, can solicit $3.6 million to all the party members and you're telling me there's just no special influence that goes along with that?

Mr. Burchfield: Well, we know from the Citizens United decision, Your Honor, that gratitude and influence are not considered to be quid pro quo corruption. So I think that's what you're talking about. That is not the sort of corruption that would sustain this limit …

The Supreme Court – and even the Roberts Court – has held repeatedly that campaign finance regulations can be justified by the need to combat real or apparent corruption. But the Roberts Court has severely constricted the meaning of "corruption" so it only applies to out-and-out criminal bribery or quid pro quo corruption. But the corruption that so undermines democratic self-government and which the Founders warned about goes far beyond that. Most Americans recognize that a system where the wealthiest of the fantastically wealthy have such "gratitude and influence" from powerful elected officials – and where everyone else is silenced by comparison – is a deep corruption of the idea of government we created for ourselves in the Constitution.

But in the universe inhabited by the far-right Roberts Court, things widely recognized by the American people as corruption are just business as usual.

PFAW Foundation

Dahlia Lithwick and Jamie Raskin Discuss New Supreme Court Term

Earlier today, PFAW hosted a telebriefing for our members on the upcoming Supreme Court term, featuring two of the nation's most respected progressive experts on the Court: Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate magazine, writes "Supreme Court Dispatches" and covers other legal issues for the magazine. Jamie Raskin is a professor of constitutional law at American University Washington College of Law, founder of its acclaimed Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, a Maryland state senator, and a senior fellow at People For the American Way.

You can listen to a full recording of the call here:

Raskin and Lithwick discussed the ominous turn that our law seems poised to take over the next few months at the hands of the Roberts Court. They talked about the cases where the far right Justices appear ready to remove key campaign contribution limits (McCutcheon v. FEC), weaken women's ability to exercise their reproductive rights (Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice and McCullen v. Coakley), undermine church-state separation (Town of Greece v. Galloway), make it far easier to engage in housing discrimination (Mount Holly v. Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action), and decimate workers' ability to form unions (Unite Here Local 355 v. Mulhall). Raskin and Lithwick answered questions from PFAW members and noted a common theme of many of these cases: erasing the moderate-conservative legacy of Sandra Day O'Connor by overruling precedents she was involved with.

They also discussed a case that has not made it to the Court yet but likely will: the Hobby Lobby case challenging the contraception coverage provisions of the Affordable Care Act. A lower court struck them down, ruling that corporations have religious liberty rights under the First Amendment just like they have free speech rights under the First Amendment (see Citizens United).

For more information about the cases discussed by Lithwick and Raskin, check out our affiliate PFAW Foundation's report on the Key Cases In The Supreme Court's New Term.

PFAW

PFAW Releases New Toolkit on Getting Money Out and Voters In to Our Democracy

Americans today face twin threats to the integrity of our elections. The threats are multifaceted and formidable, involving all branches of government at the local, state and federal level – from legislative bodies, to governorships, to courthouses. The aims are clear:

  • Manipulate the campaign finance system to get "the right people" elected.
  • Manipulate the balloting process to make it harder for "the wrong people" to vote.

These measures must be confronted. But we also need long-term proactive and pro-democracy strategies of our own.

The “Money Out, Voters In” campaign embodies this long-term vision premised on the concept of political equality, of one person = one vote.

We believe in a democratic system where all Americans have equal access to the voting booth and where all Americans, regardless of wealth, can express their views to one another and their government on a level playing field.

Through A Guide to Democratic Reform, a new toolkit released today by People For the American Way, we provide the structural framework for enacting this vision. We do not have all the answers, nor could we. We must embrace an evolution of ideas, tactics, and legislative language to achieve our goals. Yet, as the local, state, and federal initiatives cited herein show, much of that work is already well-underway.

Click here for information about critical allies and other resources.

PFAW

To Understand GOP Government Shutdown Threats, Follow the Money

If you’re curious why many House Republicans are on board with an unhinged plan to threaten a government shutdown or default over demands to “defund” Obamacare, you should follow the money.  That’s what the New York Times editorial board argued in a compelling op-ed Tuesday. 

Far-right groups such as the Club for Growth are striking out at Republicans who refuse to take this reckless stance, wielding their considerable funds to “inflict political pain” on those who do not share their extremist position. And they are titillating their Tea Party supporters with political fantasies in order to get them to send in even more money, so they can ramp up their attack on Republicans who don’t toe the line. In “The Money Behind the Shutdown Crisis,” the editorial board wrote:

These groups, all financed with secret and unlimited money, feed on chaos and would like nothing better than to claim credit for pushing Washington into another crisis. Winning an ideological victory is far more important to them than the severe economic effects of a shutdown or, worse, a default, which could shatter the credit markets.

[…] Brian Walsh, a longtime Republican operative, recently noted in U.S. News and World Report that the right is now spending more money attacking Republicans than the Democrats are. “Money begets TV ads, which begets even more money for these groups’ personal coffers,” he wrote. “Pointing fingers and attacking Republicans is apparently a very profitable fund-raising business.”

And as more money pours into these shadowy groups, their influence – and thus their potential for inflicting further damage on our democracy – grows.  With fewer effective campaign finance regulations left standing in the post-Citizens United landscape, there is little that can stop these groups from using their money to bully elected officials.

But the functioning of our government is not a game.  And though for these fringe groups making an ideological point may seem more important than keeping our government from shutting down or defaulting, Americans are tired of having our basic economic security called into question over political posturing.

As the Times editorial board put it:

It may be good for their bank accounts, but the combination of unlimited money and rigid ideology is proving toxic for the most basic functioning of government.

PFAW

RNC to Supreme Court: Strike Individual Campaign Contribution Limits

Few Americans would argue that they want to see more big money flowing into our political system.

Yet yesterday the Republican National Committee asked the Supreme Court to strike down limits on the total amount an individual donor can contribute to campaigns in a single election cycle, filing an opening brief in what is sure to be a high-profile Supreme Court case.  If the RNC and the Republican donor who together filed the case in Shaun McCutcheon, et al. v. Federal Election Commission are successful, the limit on aggregate individual contributions per cycle could jump from $117,000 to $3 million. 

As PFAW noted in February, this case threatens to be the next stage in the ongoing attack on our country’s democracy.  By calling for a gutting of our country’s campaign finance reform regulations, Republicans are ignoring the majority of Americans who believe there is already far too much big money being poured into our elections.

PFAW Foundation