This week a closely divided Supreme Court correctly followed constitutional intent by finding that a law capping total contributions an individual can make to candidates and political parties infringes on the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
The decision leaves in place limits on how much an individual can give to a single candidate or political party. These limits, the court held, are necessary to fight the appearance of "quid pro quo" corruption.
But the justices, by a 5-4 margin, struck down a cap on how much an individual can give in total while adhering to the limit on each contribution.
Chief Justice John Roberts made this essential point in the majority opinion when he wrote:
"An aggregate limit on how many candidates and committees an individual may support through contributions is not a modest restraint at all. The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse."
The decision was quickly denounced by many top Democrats. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who has raised millions of dollars for his campaigns from Wall Street, called it "another step on the road to ruination" of American democracy. He and other voices on the political left again decried the influence of the wealthy Koch brothers, who regularly donate large sums to conservative candidates and causes.
It's true that this ruling gives rich donors - on all sides - more financial campaign clout, though former S.C. Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian and S.C. Republican Chairman Matt Moore agreed that it's likely to have little or no impact in our state.
But when considering the uproar about its allegedly dire national impact, keep in mind that only about 600 individual political donors reached the aggregate giving cap in 2012, according to the Federal Elections Commission.
Meanwhile, the ruling could yield a modest yet welcome benefit to both major parties. In a column on our Friday Commentary page, Jonathan Bernstein of Bloomberg News argued that while the decision "may mean that some money that would have gone to independent expenditures now moves to candidates and party organizations ... it's unlikely to mean more money in the system in general, or more influence for big money as opposed to smaller donors."
The 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission, like the court's 5-4 Citizens United ruling in 2010, found that Congress can only impose campaign finance limits that are closely tied to the prevention of corruption or its appearance.
The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, centered on how narrowly to define the appearance of corruption and on whether other provisions of campaign finance law adequately protect against attempts to circumvent restrictions on how much any individual can give to any particular candidate or party committee.
Justice Breyer argued, without giving persuasive examples, that donors already know how to circumvent restrictions on making large contributions to individual candidates using "subtle" and "complex" methods that he said go undetected. He said that removing the cap on total contributions by an individual would make such illegal acts more likely.
But Chief Justice Roberts, in his majority opinion, stressed that Congress retains the ability to tighten regulations aimed at minimizing such unlawful acts. He rightly added, though, that legislative authority doesn't extend to violating donors' First Amendment rights.
As the chief justice wrote: "There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders. We have made clear that Congress may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others."
Yes, money has a corrupting influence on our political system.
Yes, candidates must spend too much time raising campaign funds.
Yes, Congress should do more to assure full disclosure of exactly who's contributing what to which politicians.
And on today's Commentary page, Ernest F. Hollings, who served as a U.S. senator from this state for nearly four decades, makes the case that effective campaign-finance reform will require a constitutional amendment.
Certainly past legislative attempts to solve that problem have frequently made it worse by forcing politicians to find ways around such laws - often creating additional competitive advantages for incumbents.
But Americans' right to free speech does include the right to campaign speech - and the right to contribute to all of the candidates of their choice.
The Supreme Court has again acknowledged that right in a decision that reaffirms the First Amendment.
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