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Supreme Court rightfully upholds campaign finance freedom

By Brian McCarty
On April 9, 2014

One week ago, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in the case McCutcheon v. FEC. In a decision that will be equally lauded and reviled, the Court struck down aggregate campaign contribution limits as a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Many have expressed concern that the ruling will strengthen ties between representatives and a small wealthy elite, to the detriment of the vast majority of constituents. With regard to this ruling, those concerns are greatly exaggerated. In fact, this case is evidence of a far more troubling and deep-rooted problem than the corrupting influence of money in politics.
For decades, Congress has placed base limits on the amount of money an individual may donate to political candidates and party committees. The current limit is $2,600 per candidate per election, or $5,200 if primary elections are included. The ruling in this case left these base limits entirely intact. It struck down aggregate limits that limited contributions to all candidates to $48,600 per election cycle. These aggregate limits prevented individuals from giving the maximum amount of $5,200 to as many candidates as they wish, instead being limited to supporting a small number of candidates or decreasing the value of their contributions. Now individuals may donate $5,200 per election cycle to as many candidates as they wish. Though many protest this will greatly increase corruption, it seems highly unlikely that a donation of $5,200 would give an individual undue influence over a candidate given the vast sums expended in political campaigns.
More troubling is what this case symbolizes for our nation's interpretation of the Constitution. The Court invalidated these actions as violations of the First Amendment's protection of free speech. The men who drafted, passed and ratified the First Amendment intended it to protect an individual's freedom of conscience from infringement by the federal government. Individuals are free to hold or express any beliefs of their choosing without federal restraint. Extending it to protect economic transactions, though they may contain some element of expression, is an impermissibly broad interpretation of the First Amendment.
That being said, neither the original Constitution nor any subsequent amendment delegates any authority over regulating campaigns to the federal government. Congress does have the power under Article I to regulate the "times, places, and manner of holding elections," but the power to regulate campaigns is quite distinct from the power to regulate the manner in which an election will be held at the particular time and place the State or Congress shall prescribe. This is a statement many would find troubling, not because they rely upon a Constitutional provision clearly giving this power to the federal government, but because they believe it is something Congress has the power to regulate, regardless of whether the power was ever given. This conception of government is not limited to this issue, but has infected virtually every realm of legislation over many decades. The Court almost exclusively relies upon specific prohibitions on the federal government found within the amendments to strike down Congressional actions, perhaps explaining why opponents of federal regulations of campaign finance have used a First Amendment argument in litigation. The principle that those powers not delegated by the people to the federal government are reserved to the people, to be exercised as they wish through their State governments, has been almost entirely forgotten. This has resulted in the destruction of the system of government established by the Constitution, resulting in a consolidated government of unlimited powers rather than the federal system we still profess to value.
Many argue that times may change and the federal government may need to take on additional powers to deal with a changing world. That is certainly true, and for this reason, the Founders provided an amendment process. The process was made difficult to assure that any changes in the original compact the States acceded to would receive their consent. The federal government's habit of usurping powers not delegated, rather than receiving a positive grant from the people through an amendment, has done the greatest damage to the right to self-government we vindicated in the Revolution. These implications are the most troubling aspect of the debate over McCutcheon v. FEC.
 


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