By Nate Shinagawa
Shaun McCutcheon, a plaintiff in an upcoming Supreme Court case that could have big implications for our political system, asked earlier this year: “Why am I not free to spend money however I want?”
It’s an important question, and as an elected official who has worked many years to fight the influx of wealthy special interest money into our democracy, I’d like to take a shot at answering it.
McCutcheon is a wealthy donor who wants to be able to give more money than he already does directly to political candidates, committees and PACs. On Oct. 8, he and the Republican National Committee will ask the Supreme Court to strike down limits on the total amount donors can give directly to political campaigns. If the plaintiffs win in McCutcheon v. FEC, the consequences for our democracy would be grave.
Why? First of all, because those limits – which the Supreme Court long ago deemed constitutional – are there for a reason. Under today’s rules, you can’t give more than $123,200 directly to candidates, parties or PACs in each election cycle. But if McCutcheon and the RNC are successful, that number would skyrocket to more than $3.6 million – almost 70 times what average American families make in a year. Imagine a political system in which a few rich donors can make multimillion-dollar direct contributions. The risk of corruption is obvious.
But perhaps even more important is the impact that striking down these limits would have on the voices of everyday Americans. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the door to unlimited corporate political spending – and the tidal wave of spending it ushered in has made it harder and harder to hear the voices of individual Americans. This case is another step in that same attack, threatening to give even more political power to the nation’s wealthiest.
The vast majority of Americans may not be able to donate millions to political candidates, but our voices should still matter. That’s why I have been a supporter of campaign finance reform since I was first elected in 2006, and why in 2012 I helped spearhead a local resolution supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Until Americans can take our democracy back from corporate and wealthy special interests, they will continue to block progress on issues ranging from gun violence prevention to environmental protection.
So why shouldn’t McCutcheon be free to pour as much money directly into political campaigns as he’d like? Because Americans want to live in a democracy where our elections are in the hands of “the people” – not just the country’s wealthiest.
Nate Shinagawa is a Tompkins County legislator and a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.