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“We’ve seen what’s happening in Sacramento right now with pay-to-play politics. With this decision, the Supreme Court is codifying pay-to-play politics,” said Austin Price, field director for CALPRIG, the California Public Interest Research Group.
The ruling will have no effect on state-level campaigns in California, as the state’s campaign finance law does not limit the aggregate amount any donor can contribute to candidates for state office. The state law, like the federal law, limits the amount donors can contribute to any one candidate, and the court’s decision allows those individual limits to remain in place.
The decision comes on top of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, in which the high court ruled that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts on independent expenditure campaigns to promote or oppose candidates for office.
Wednesday’s decision invalidates a federal law that limited to $123,000 the total amount any individual could contribute to federal candidates in any election cycle. It means wealthy donors are now free to give maximum, $2,600 contributions to as many candidates as they please, potentially contributing as much as $3.5 million in a given election.
The ruling in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission may provide momentum to citizen-based efforts to persuade Congress to approve a constitutional amendment that would effectively overturn the Citizens United decision, said Derek Cressman, former director of California Common Cause.
Cressman is calling on the California Legislature to place an advisory measure before voters asking Congress to adopt such a constitutional amendment. Similar statewide advisory votes have already taken place in Colorado and Montana, and in each case received the support of about 75 percent of voters.
“It takes an extraordinary amount of public pressure to pass a constitutional amendment,” Cressman said. “We need to start looking at extraordinary tactics.”
Last Friday, Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, introduced a bill calling for an advisory vote in California in November 2016. Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said Wednesday she intends to co-author the bill.
“We need to create a groundswell of discontent,” said Jackson, whose district includes western Ventura County. “This is a democracy. You have to fight hard to protect democracy. This is a fight worth having.”
In a statement issued by her office, Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, said the decision will mean “millionaires and billionaires can funnel as much money as they like” into efforts to influence elections.
In response, Brownley said, Congress needs “to pass a constitutional amendment allowing us to set reasonable limits on campaign donations to ensure that our democracy does not become a full-blown plutocracy.”
To illustrate the effect of the Citizens United decision on the 2012 presidential election, Price noted that CALPIRG analyzed contributions to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and found that the contributions of just 32 wealthy donors equaled the combined contributions of 3.7 million small donors who contributed to the presidential campaigns.
Price said the court decision will intensify public cynicism about Congress and the role that campaign money plays in determining its decision-making. Already, he noted, public approval of Congress’ performance is at an all-time low.
But in its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court, as it did in Citizens United, asserted that the only means by which the government can address the issue of reducing the appearance of corruption is to place caps on the amount any one individual can contribute to any one candidate.
In his majority opinion in the Citizens United case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that unlimited independent expenditures, “including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
Similarly, in his opinion Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts asserted that aggregate limits “do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.”
Jackson called that argument out of touch with reality and public perception.
“I don’t know what world the chief justice is living in if that is his view,” she said.
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