Striking Down Campaign Donation Limits Would Be a Radical Move
The Founders would approve of limits on campaign donations
October 8, 2013
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.
"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.
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.