In the world of John G. Roberts Jr., it appears the only true case of government corruption is the "American Hustle" style of handing over a pile of money to a congressman in some smoke-filled backroom deal. Yet here in the real world, we've come to understand that corruption is a subtler evil where money buys access and preference, resulting in gifts not necessarily tied up with a bow under a tree, but just as real and valuable.
Forty years ago, Americans were outraged by this potential assault on democracy, and so were enough members of Congress to support bipartisan limits on campaign donations. For years, there's been a back and forth as various approaches to hold back the worst effects of money on politics (admittedly, a leaky dike against a veritable flood) were tried, from the creation of the Federal Elections Commission in 1972 to the McCain-Feingold "soft money" reforms 30 years later. Some worked, and some did not as the big donors and special interests adapted and found loopholes, giving rise to such institutions as political action committees and 501(c)(4) dark money.
With Wednesday's ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, Mr. Roberts and the same four cohorts who brought us the destructive Citizens United v. FEC ruling five years ago have renewed their assault on campaign finance reform, ignoring legal precedent and leaving behind little hope that the remnants will stand much longer. The 5-4 majority deemed it illegal to cap political campaign donations in aggregate in a ruling that essentially transfers even greater power to the billionaires, on the grounds that their free speech rights were somehow in jeopardy if they couldn't give the maximum donation allowable to every single person running for federal office.
We don't believe that most Americans support this. Polls show the vast majority believe unlimited donations have a corrupting influence on politics. But unfortunately, it is clear that most Republicans in Congress see how unrestricted giving by the rich may work in their political favor. House Speaker John Boehner had the typical reaction in calling the ruling a case where "freedom of speech is being upheld." Never mind that it's more a case of the free speech of ordinary Americans getting drowned out. While McCutcheon spoke to federal limits, it's only a matter of time before the ruling is used to strike down state-level restrictions like Maryland's $10,000 limit per four-year cycle (already set to rise to $24,000 next year).
But that doesn't mean that there aren't potential remedies out there, and it certainly doesn't mean that Americans should give up hope or disengage from the political process. Requiring greater disclosure and transparency so voters could at least know (with the proverbial click of the computer mouse) who is giving what to whom would help. Public financing of political campaigns would be even better, offering incumbents and challengers alike an opportunity to raise money without getting so deeply indebted to the 1 percent. And then there is the big enchilada — a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Roberts court and return sensible limits to donations.
None are likely to pass tomorrow. But the McCutcheon ruling, like the Citizens United decision before it, has underscored the need for action. Rep. John Sarbanes' Government By the People Act has more than 140 co-sponsors in the House while a version of Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen's DISCLOSE Act actually passed the chamber in 2010 only to die in the Senate. Sadly, GOP endorsements for either have been hard to come by, but that may change. Rare is the congressman of any political stripe who doesn't recognize the corrosive and worsening effects of big money on decision making or doesn't privately resent having to go "dialing for dollars" to the same small group of people over and over again. Even on Capitol Hill, insiders see the undue influence afforded those with deep pockets. Only down the street in the polished, wood-paneled isolation of the nation's highest court is such an obvious danger still invisible.