On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the core, remaining limits on campaign contributions -- the individual caps -- should be struck down in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Given the Court's conservative majority and that the same Roberts Court recently put an end to caps on what corporations and labor unions can donate (in Citizens United) -- one should expect the worst: allowing those with deep pockets to use unlimited amounts of money to sway politicians.
None of the stock arguments that claim that the flood of private money into public hands does not corrupt our politicians hold water or anything else. The notion that money is a form of speech, as the Court decided in Buckley v. Valeo, ignores that while we all have one voice, some of us have a hell of a lot more dough than others. We are ending up with a system in which all people are allowed to speak at the national town hall meeting otherwise known as elections but only few are able to buy and bring to the meeting powerful megaphones and amplifiers the rest cannot afford.
True, the candidate blessed with the most money is not always guaranteed to win. In an election one can find someone, who -- due to poor skills, foot in the mouth disease, or deeply unpopular positions -- lost despite the fact that he or she raised a ton of dough. However, since 2000 and as of 2010, the average winner in contests for open House seats has outspent the average loser by at least $310,000.
Some argue that money does not buy influence, but only access. Meaning that politicians will allow big donors to visit with them, listen to them, dine and play golf with them, but not actually sway them. First of all, even if this were true, this means that politicians are much more likely to hear the arguments of the wealthy and not those of the average America: Wall Street more than Main Street, real estate owners before renters, doctors rather than nurses. And equally important to the impact that large campaign contributions have on the decisions politicians make after the election.
Two examples follow from endless numbers that could be given I am sorry to report. Representative Howard McKeon (R-CA), the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, received over $250,000 from nuclear weapons contractors in 2012. From 2007-2008, McKeon voted with these defense firms 25 percent of the time. However, as he gained seniority, donations began to dramatically increase. The amount McKeon received from the nuclear industry in 2012 was equal to almost half the total money that he had received from the industry over his past two decades running for Congress. As of the start of 2011, McKeon has voted 100 percent in accordance with the preferred positions of the nuclear industry.
House representatives who voted for the amendments designed to water down Dodd-Frank had received, on average, 7.8 times as much in campaign contributions from America's four largest banks as representatives who voted against the measures.
Defenders of cash over the barrel politics argue that there is no other way. That whatever one does, money is like water flooding down the hill. If you stem it one way, it will find another way to flow. However, many other democracies have found ways to conduct elections that are much cleaner, almost unbelievably cleaner. Here is the way the Brits do it: the official campaign period typically runs five to six weeks, only "permissible donors" can make contributions above £200 (300 USD) to political parties and above £50 (75 USD) to candidates, contributions from abroad (aside from registered UK voters overseas) are prohibited, ceilings on candidate expenditures are imposed, paid political advertising is prohibited, and candidates who knowingly incur expenses in excess of the mandated limits must vacate their seat or office and are liable to a £5,000 fine.
There are a few who suggest that the Court has learned from what followed Citizen United -- one rich man, writing ten million dollar checks (okay with his wife) -- to keep a candidate running after he failed to win one primary after another. And -- that even more money gushed into the last elections then into previous ones. Hence the Court may use this occasion to move in the opposite direction: shore up some limitations on donations to candidates.
Don't hold your breath that this court will see the light, because you will turn awfully blue. Instead, we must consider going down the very challenging, perhaps impossible, but seemingly only open route: to seek a constitutional amendment that treats our current campaign finance scheme as an illegal system of bribery.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction. For more discussion, see icps.gwu.edu.