Many trends in American politics and government today make me worry about the health of our representative democracy. These include the decline of Congress as a powerful, co-equal branch of government, the accumulation of power in the presidency, and the impact of money on the overall political process. Recently, the Supreme Court’s five-member majority declared that it’s unconstitutional to limit the aggregate amount an individual can give to candidates, political parties, and political action committees. Campaign contributions amplify free speech, these justices maintain, and campaign finance laws violate the First Amendment – any limit on the ability of individuals to contribute to candidates is a restraint of free speech and the only legitimate cause for the government to step in is to fight blatant, obvious corruption; it should not act to limit access and influence by well-to-do donors. The result of this decision will almost certainly increase the impact of money on the political system.
The Supreme Court decision seems to be insensitive to this. Politicians need large sums to run for office, and they are keenly attuned to generous donors. Inevitably, this gives more political influence to the relative handful of wealthy donors who choose to “invest” in politics, and it dampens the influence of voters who don’t have the financial means to command attention.
What can we do? My preference would be that the president and Congress step in and design rules of campaign finance that would reverse the growing influence of money on our campaigns – but that does not appear likely to happen. Indeed, even as we speak, opponents of campaign finance laws are preparing challenges to the remaining limits on individual contributions and to the easily avoided disclosure laws we already have. I’m certain they’ll get a sympathetic hearing in the Supreme Court. Paradoxically, this may be our best hope. Because I also believe that Americans are growing tired of the outsized impact that great wealth enjoys in politics, and that a backlash to the Court’s decisions is taking shape. My sense is that growing numbers of ordinary voters are recognizing that money is a poison in our system. I fervently hope that support for public financing and for muscular disclosure laws will grow with time, because our politics will be more democratic, more honest, and more free if we reduce the impact of money on elections.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.