The U.S. Supreme Court's latest ruling on campaign finance rules is shortsighted, wrongheaded, even destructive. One thing it isn't, however, is surprising.
Four years after upending a century-old ban on campaign spending by corporations and labor unions in federal elections, the court removed another restriction on the flow of cash, overturning a $123,000 aggregate limit for individual contributors.
The only positive in Wednesday's decision is that the court stopped short of eliminating the $5,200 cap on individual contributions to candidates for president and Congress. Even that restriction was denounced by Clarence Thomas, one of the five conservative justices dismantling campaign reform laws with decisions that equate money with speech.
"If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the latest ruling.
Such "speech" can only be restricted, Roberts wrote, to prevent "quid pro quo corruption."
As even casual observers understand, bribery isn't the only way that money corrupts the political system. It isn't even the most common way.
Money buys access to decision-makers — opportunities to lobby and advise that aren't available to most rank-and-file voters. Big donors are frequently rewarded with ambassadorships and appointments to executive positions and regulatory panels.
As Justice Stephen Breyer said in a blistering dissent to Wednesday's ruling, "Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard."
The corrosive influence of money resulted in the restrictions on corporations and unions that the court overturned in its Citizens United decision in 2010, ushering in an era of Super PACs and secretive nonprofit groups whose primary purpose is politics. Disclosures during the Watergate scandal of $1 million donations and safes filled with cash produced the contribution limit erased by the court this week in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission.
In Citizens United, the court said disclosure laws would protect the public's interest in knowing who was bankrolling political campaigns. The justices were naive. Republicans in Congress and the FEC have blocked efforts to close a loophole in federal tax law exploited by Crossroads GPS and other nonprofits to avoid identifying their donors.