Weeks after it was handed down, the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC continues to reverberate through the political world. The decision, which struck down aggregate contribution limits, marked yet another move to deregulate our campaign finance system post-Citizens United.
Supporters of campaign finance limits argue they are necessary to protect against political corruption or the appearance of corruption. Writing for the majority in McCutcheon, Chief Justice John Roberts seemed unconvinced that political contributions could constitute corruption:
Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties.” (PDF)
The idea that quid pro quo corruption is the only kind of corruption worth fighting stems from an incredibly naive view of the political process. Just look at the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a prime example of the role money plays in politics–something the Supreme Court majority again failed to grasp.
The Real World: D.C.
Earlier this year, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the two biggest cable providers in the country, announced their plans to merge. If approved, the new company would control 27 of the 30 largest markets nationwide. The companies say consumers will benefit from the deal; meanwhile, consumers aren’t buying it. Neither company has a stellar customer service ranking and there is little indication this will change for the better.
Even though the companies don’t compete in the same markets, there are other potential problems this merger could create. For one, Comcast has been accused of failing to adhere to legal obligations imposed after its 2011 merger with NBC Universal.
What does this have to do with campaign finance? Well, corporations cannot contribute directly to candidates, but they can form a legally separate PAC to make contributions. Even though the amount an individual can give to a single political action committee is still limited, after McCutcheon, individuals can now give money to even more PACs than before.
As Ars Technica reported, every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee–ten Democrats, eight Republicans–received donations from Comcast’s PAC. (Minnesota’s Al Franken isn’t technically included, but he did receive funding from the PAC after he won his election recount and after Comcast contributed to his opponent, Norm Coleman. However, Franken vehemently opposes the merger and has otherwise received nothing from Comcast’s PAC.)
The strategy of contributing to both parties isn’t new. In fact, it’s a common tactic to ensure continued influence. What’s more, it’s easy to find instances where contributions appear to have influenced behavior.
Paying And Playing
Supporters of campaign finance deregulation might argue there’s no hard evidence donations changed senators’ behavior. In Franken’s case, they certainly haven’t. This may be true, but it also misses a key point–even the appearance of companies receiving undue influence is damaging to the political process. After all, why bother voting when contributions decide what Congress will do? For our small-d democratic system, this is potentially devastating.
We don’t know if Comcast’s PAC made contributions with the expectation that Comcast would try to merge with Time Warner, or even NBC Universal a few years ago. Even so, what is the point of monetary contributions if not to garner influence? (Comcast also engages in lobbying activity, spending nearly $19 million in 2013 alone.)
McCutcheon could also make things worse. Striking down aggregate limits means people can contribute to as many PACs as they want; since multiple PACs can support the same candidates, the impact of those contributions could be magnified significantly. Put another way, even though McCutcheon did not strike down limits on contributions to individual candidates, it created some paths to get around them.
In this case, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts (net worth: around $1 billion, mostly in Comcast stock) or Time Warner CEO Robert Marcus (slated to earn $80 million if the merger closes) could hypothetically find other PACs supporting senators (or other officials for that matter) and contribute the legal maximum to as many as they want, with the expectation that some of the money will go to their preferred candidates.
It isn’t technically quid pro quo corruption, but the effect is essentially the same. The Supreme Court’s error is the belief that preventing this from happening is not compelling enough to allow for contribution limits.
In other words, if your cable service gets worse in the future, you may have the Supreme Court to thank.