In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court dropped a bomb on the American political landscape with its decision in Citizens United v. FEC allowing unlimited election spending by corporations, unions and other interest groups. The impact of the blast was felt across the nation. Here in Wisconsin, we already had a full-blown campaign arms race on our hands before Citizens United, but in the ruling's wake we've seen election spending more than triple.
To reach the conclusion that wealthy interests should be able to spend as much as they want to influence our elections, five of the nine justices married two legal doctrines that do not owe their origins to the plain words of the Constitution or the First Amendment but rather are judicial inventions.
The first is the idea that corporations are people. Ages ago the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that people could be property, giving the judiciary's blessing to the institution of slavery. Now the court is holding that property can be a person.
The second doctrine that was joined in court-ordered matrimony to produce the Citizens United ruling is the notion that money equals speech. If you share the justices' belief that money is speech, then you will have to get comfortable with the idea of your employer compensating you for your labor with a pep talk instead of a paycheck. And good luck with the electric company when you send a voice recording to pay your utility bill.
In 2012, 32 donors to federal SuperPACs, the offspring of Citizens United and a related case called SpeechNow v. FEC, gave as much to influence elections as 3.7 million Americans gave to the Obama and Romney campaigns combined. If money equals speech, then each of those 32 SuperPAC donors spoke at 115,000 times the volume of each of the people who gave much smaller amounts to Romney and Obama. More than 300 million Americans gave nothing at all. The mute button was on for them.
A few weeks ago the same slim five-member majority doubled down on Citizens United in a new case called McCutcheon v. FEC and dropped another bomb on American democracy. While Citizens United gave the green light to interest groups to write a blank check for election advertising they sponsor themselves, McCutcheon lifts the lid on what wealthy donors can give directly to candidates, political parties and political action committees.
In McCutcheon, the court struck down the federal aggregate limit on campaign contributions. That limit was about $123,000. In a country of well over 300 million people, a mere 1,219 donors reached that limit in 2012. One of them whose style was cramped was Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon. He wants to give more. The same five justices who gave us Citizens United obliged him. Now a single wealthy donor will be able to give $3.6 million to federal candidates and committees.
Wisconsin is one of several states that have laws similar to the federal aggregate limit that was just tossed by the Supreme Court. Ours is an annual limit of $10,000 on total contributions to state and local candidates, parties and political committees. In 2010 and 2012 combined, only 299 donors – including 173 who don't live in Wisconsin – reached the $10,000 limit. These donors' numbers are equal to five one-thousandths of 1% of the state's population, although most of them are not Wisconsin residents.
One of the mega-donors who is chafing under the $10,000 limit is Racine businessman Fred Young, who is challenging the state law in court. If he succeeds, a tiny group of millionaires and billionaires will see their ability to influence state and local elections expanded exponentially. If Wisconsin's $10,000 aggregate limit on donations had not been in place in 2012, a single donor would have been give candidates and parties at least $6.8 million to influence state and local elections in our state.
The First Amendment is only 45 words long. The word "money" is not among those 45 words. And you can read the entire Constitution from the first word ("We") to the very last word of the 27th Amendment and you will not find the word "corporation" a single time. Five members of the Supreme Court have tortured the plain meaning of these founding documents to effectively remove the "r" from free speech and further empower the wealthiest and most privileged among us.
When judges issue rulings so at odds with bedrock principles of democracy and core American values like equality, liberty and justice for all, it is up to the people to overturn them. It is up to us to secure passage of a 28th Amendment clarifying that money is not speech, corporations are not people, elections are not auctions and public offices are not commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.