The U.S. Supreme Court speaketh, and another restraint on political money falleth.
The court’s ruling in McKutcheon vs. FEC on Tuesday echoed the logic of its Citizens United decision. In that 2010 ruling, a 5-4 majority struck down limits on campaign donations by corporations, unions and other organizations eager to plant their friends in public office. In McKutcheon, the same majority threw out limits on wealthy donors — the human variety.
Those who see campaign contributions strictly as political speech are applauding the decision: It gets government out of the business of limiting individuals’ participation in elections. Those who worry that the raw financial power of the wealthy often drowns out the voice of the unwealthy — and invites more corruption in the bargain — don’t like it.
There are principled arguments against restrictions, but the Constitution isn’t just a geometry book. Its legal axioms and theorems are crucial, but practical effects in the messy world of elections aren’t irrelevant to the First Amendment. Done right, judicious limits can help preserve the political speech of people who can’t write $10,000 checks to an independent political action committee.
McKutcheon does have a positive side, though. By letting the millionaires and billionaires write more checks directly to candidates — as many as they want — the donors will more frequently bypass the less restricted PACS many of them had been using.
So it should be easier for voters to trace political donations to their real sources. Independent PACs are often opaque; it can be all but impossible to figure out where their money comes from. After McKutcheon, campaign checks may be more likely to have signatures.
Openness is by far the most important kind of campaign finance reform. A candidate may have a multimillion-dollar war chest, but if voters discover he’s getting most of it is from political extremists or toxic industries, the immensity of the loot might even backfire on him.
This brings up a sore subject.
Candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and most state offices in this country must report their campaign contributions online shortly after receiving them. This allows voters to track donations in something close to real time.
The U.S. Senate is the glaring exception. It does not require its candidates to disclose online; senators can do it entirely on paper, whose contents must be slowly and laboriously entered into a database of the Federal Elections Commission. In some cases, voters can’t find out who paid for the senator’s final round of attack ads until after he or she has been re-elected.
Donor signatures are useful only if citizens can see them before they fill out their ballots. McKutcheon is another reason Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should drop this fossilized disclosure system that insults American voters.