Campaign finance laws: Anti-corruption or anti-free speech?

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission last week, which eliminated the FEC’s cap on individual campaign contributions that’s been in place since the 1970s.

As usual with high-profile Supreme Court decisions, many were vocally upset about the new ruling. Liberals especially claim the decision will essentially sanction political corruption as wealthy donors, whose interests are necessarily different from those who don’t have a billion dollars, donate large sums to candidates who will enact favorable policies for their wealthiest donors.

That’s always been the fear and the ensuing rationale for campaign finance laws limiting the dollar amounts that can be donated to a campaign committee within a given period of time. The Supreme Court dismissed this rationale for its tendency to limit one’s exercise of free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment.

 

 

While in the past the Court has chosen a balanced approach to protecting speech rights and limiting corruption, the McCutcheon decision turns that on its head.

Consider one of the most high-profile donors of the 2012 presidential election cycle, Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is a billionaire casino magnate who spent more than $100 million during the run-up to that November, betting it all on Mitt Romney’s (metaphorical) horse, as well as several other Republican candidates.

Romney turned out to be a bad bet, of course, but when you’ve got $100 million to spend in the first place, I’m guessing you’ll be OK financially.

Lately, though, some of Adelson’s other donees have been giving him a boost: helping him to eliminate his competition in the gambling sphere.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced the Restore America’s Wire Act in the Senate on March 26. The bill and its counterpart in the House of Representatives would get rid of loopholes in state laws that allow online gambling — sending gambling addicts and would-be casual poker players to casinos.

So, an elected official is sponsoring legislation that directly benefits one of his donors. That doesn’t necessarily mean corruption, right?

Hopefully not. It’s important to keep in mind here that the senator in question hails from a bastion of religious conservatism, and many such religious conservatives are morally opposed to gambling. It could be that Graham is simply looking out for the wishes of his constituents who don’t like gambling and want online gambling communities shut down — for the children, of course.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but it does remain questionable. How much money equals too much influence? This is the question the Supreme Court found itself unable to answer.

Once you get into trying to figure out a solution to this problem, you’ll find yourself running into new problems: Are limitations on donations keeping people from fully expressing themselves? Do these limitations favor some over others without a compelling reason? How can policymakers minimize the harm and maximize the benefits of campaign finance regulations?

It’s a serious problem for serious people, and it’s not about to get easier to solve.

Reach the columnist at skthoma4@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @savannahkthomas

Editor’s note: The opinion presented in this column is the author’s and does not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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