Debate Club

Striking Down Campaign Donation Limits Would Be a Radical Move

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On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case that has the potential to inject a dangerously large amount of money into an American political system already flush with cash. But it's also a case that based on all legal precedent, and on the constitutional vision of the Founding Fathers, should be easy to decide.

The court will consider the constitutionality of aggregate contribution limits. This is a limit on the total amount one donor can give in federal elections to all candidates, parties, and PACs combined – currently $123,200.

The lead plaintiff, Alabama millionaire Shaun McCutcheon, claims the limit violates his First Amendment rights by inhibiting his ability to funnel vast sums of cash in excess of the limit directly to candidates. But the Founding Fathers didn't envision the First Amendment as protection for moneyed interests to dominate our political system. On the contrary, their voluminous writings, speeches and correspondences remind us that they saw fighting private corruption of government as a key function of the Constitution.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

"It is essential," wrote James Madison in the Federalist Papers, "to [a democratic] government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic."

Madison's meaning is clear: A democracy, which depends on the consent and participation of the people, can only function if the government is protected from the undue influence of an elite few at the expense of the many. The First Amendment is meant to address this by ensuring the greatest possible number of Americans have their voices heard in the public conversation that informs elected officials' decisions. Limits on the amount of money elite interests can funnel to politicians, like the aggregate limits at issue in this case, are exactly the type of protections they thought necessary.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Fast forward 200 years from Madison's day, and modern day legal precedent makes the Court's decision easy. In 1976's Buckley v. Valeo, the Court upheld aggregate limits on the ground that corruption or the appearance of corruption are inherent in a system permitting unlimited contributions – a decision clearly in line with the Founders' vision. 

If the Court now struck down aggregate limits, it would be a radical departure from the legal and constitutional history that has made American democracy so vibrant. Using this opportunity to protect political debate from the dominance of a wealthy few is imperative if we wish to protect that legacy.

Lawrence Norden

About Lawrence Norden Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University

Tags
politics
Supreme Court
campaign finance

Other Arguments

#2
50 Pts
The Government Shutdown Shows Contribution Limits Are Needed More Than Ever

Yes – The Government Shutdown Shows Contribution Limits Are Needed More Than Ever

Blair Bowie Democracy Advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group

#4
46 Pts
Creating a Congress of the Rich and For the Rich

Yes – Creating a Congress of the Rich and For the Rich

Lawrence Lessig Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School

#5
45 Pts
The Supreme Court Could Be Creating a Right to Bribery

Yes – The Supreme Court Could Be Creating a Right to Bribery

Nick Nyhart , Kurt Walters Research and Policy Analyst, and President and CEO of Public Campaign

#6
34 Pts
A Knockout Blow for Campaign Finance Laws

Yes – A Knockout Blow for Campaign Finance Laws

Susan Lagon Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University

#8
-37 Pts
Ditch These Unconstitutional Limits on Campaign Spending

No – Ditch These Unconstitutional Limits on Campaign Spending

Rick Esenberg President and General Counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty

#9
-40 Pts
Freer Political Speech Strengthens Our Democracy

No – Freer Political Speech Strengthens Our Democracy

Ilya Shapiro Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute

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