On Wednesday, April 2, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued another landmark ruling, this time in the matter of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The decision eliminated the remaining spending cap that an individual can contribute to federal election candidates within a two-year cycle. The argument that was articulated by Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee, just as it was in the Citizens United decision in 2010, was that limiting campaign contributions infringed on the First Amendment right of free speech. Citizens United introduced us to the Political Action Committee (PAC) – and even Super PACs – searing these phrases into our collective, political vernacular; what will this latest Supreme Court decision bring to electoral politics in this country? Plain and simple: even more money.

At first glance, you may be in agreement with the principles behind this decision. Since when should the First Amendment rights, of the backers of election candidates, be curtailed by outmoded and arcane rules and regulations? Again, in principle, I agree that our guaranteed Constitutional rights should never be infringed upon in any case. But, due to Citizens United and this latest decision, can it be posited that there will be equal access to those rights before the law? In my opinion, with the disproportionate amount of money available to corporate and labor interests over individuals, the individual voter will be less influential in deciding their elected representation.

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

The latest Supreme Court decision will infuse an untold amount of additional money into our electoral process. If the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign left us with any benchmarks, it would be one of the greatest examples of political largess: a $2 billion campaign. What contribution records will be set in the 2014 midterm elections? What will we dare to see in the 2016 presidential campaign? We can only expect to double – maybe get close to tripling – the benchmark we set in 2012. So, if you were tired of hearing campaign advertisements that ended with “I approve this message”, you will get more tired of hearing it now.

If this country far eclipses the record set in the 2012 campaign, it will be nothing to applaud. This decision will be representative of a greater outgrowth of what our government has been and what it will become: a government who’s agenda is set by special interests, not individual voters. Although you can argue that Citizens United’s detrimental changes to our electoral process were invalidated by President Obama’s election to a second term, there is only so much that the individual voter will be able to do to overcome this new influx of additional money into the electoral process. Unless voters can amalgamate a money amount with their special interests, voters will have a more difficult time in making their voices heard.

With two landmark decisions now in the history books on this subject, what can be done to reverse course and make the vote the representation of free speech? For example, can a new form of campaign finance reform come to fruition? The Citizens United decision invalidated any future legislative action from curtailing campaign spending (who recalls the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, aka McCain-Feingold Act?) If the normal legislative process has been rendered useless by Citizens United and McCutcheon, what about a campaign finance Constitutional amendment? Yes, how about a Constitutional amendment? If we could find the space in the Constitution to dictate how our elected representatives get paid, then we, the people, ought to find space in the Constitution to dictate how our elected representatives get elected. In my opinion, we ought to be electing our representatives using our vote, not the dollar bill. We should not be allowing a few interests (namely those of the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, etc…) to dictate the agenda and anoint the candidates that they think should be elected to represent the minority, not the majority, interests. If there is any hope in reclaiming the electoral process on behalf of the majority voters, then this will need to be the course of action taken to undo the precedents that have been set.

This latest Supreme Court decision will give us many reasons to cheer, as well as many reasons to shudder. I, for one, am shuddering. If our country continues to proceed down an electoral path paved with cash-riddled politicking, we will continue to move farther away from Abraham Lincoln’s longstanding axiom of that “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Nicholas Zuba '15

Written by Nicholas Zuba '15

Nicholas Zuba '15 is a Master of Public Administration candidate at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. He is studying with a concentration in Public and Non-Profit Management, with a focus on environmental program management. Before coming to Cornell, Nicholas worked for the Town of Babylon, a municipality in Long...
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