Limits on campaign funds vital to prevent corruption

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Earlier this month, in the landmark ruling McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court struck down all limits on campaign donations. Apparently, according to Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, someone who sends a $100 million check to a candidate is not engaging in corruption. In fact, Roberts claimed this action did not even have the “appearance of corruption.”

Roberts asserted that Congress may only target specific types of corruption, where there is a clear agreement that a politician will act in a specific way in return for money. By Roberts’s definition, only the most flagrant instances of quid pro quo would be considered corruption. This mindbogglingly narrow definition of corruption, as well as the impacts of the decision itself, has highly problematic implications for American politics.

I’ll start with the obvious: someone who gives any politician huge amounts of money will exert undue influence in politics. The McCutcheon decision provides the most benefit to the select handful of individuals who can afford to donate more than $123,000 per election cycle — the former cap on campaign contributions — namely billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers.

Last month, prominent politicians including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker visited Adelson in Las Vegas to effectively court him after Adelson announced he would hold private interviews with politicians to see who he would back in 2016. How can anyone say that this obsequious political mating dance does not even have the appearance of corruption?

We don’t need a cap on just campaign contributions, but also on overall campaign spending. In the past decade, the role of money in politics has grown significantly. Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has steadily chipped away at campaign finance laws, culminating in the rise of super PACs in 2010s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. As a result of these decisions, campaign spending has exploded.

According to CNN, there has been a threefold increase in spending in congressional races since 1986. A run for the House today takes $1.6 million on average, and a run for the Senate takes $10.4 million. It is highly unlikely that anyone who is not a millionaire — or backed by a millionaire — can compete in the races.

In fact, according to The New York Times, for the first time in history, more than half of the House and Senate are millionaires. The United States is becoming a nation run by millionaires for billionaires, and it shows in both our policies and political discourse.

Politicians will debate universal health care, immigration reform, and the extension of unemployment benefits for months on end, but billions of dollars of subsidies for large corporations are often passed without even the slightest discussion. Taxes are becoming increasingly regressive; according to Mother Jones, tax rates for highest earners are at their lowest in years, especially so for the top 400 households in the nation.

Given this state of affairs, it may seem impossible to ever “fix” American politics. However, one of the main points in Thomas Piketty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that “a drift toward oligarchy” can be prevented by good policy, such as a progressive tax policy and spending on public goods. Campaign finance laws are just as important as these policies.

Limits on campaign spending and contributions would not completely end corruption and plutocracy in America, but it would significantly reduce the power and influence of the super wealthy and large corporations in elections. Money speaks far louder than words, and we need to make sure that speaking with money is the exception, rather than the rule, in Washington.