Limiting election campaign contributions is one of the most contentious issues in American politics. The reason it never seems to fade in importance or edge toward a resolution is simple but unusual: Both sides in the confrontation are correct.
The Supreme Court's narrow 5-4 ruling yesterday eliminating overall limits on how much money people can donate to political campaigns is a predictable follow-up to the more sweeping 2010 Citizens United case that removed all barriers to spending by independent committees. The court kept intact limits on how much can be given to individual candidates and political party committees, but struck down the $123,200 cap on how much individuals can donate to all campaigns and party committees combined in each two-year election cycle.
In a plurality opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. showed he thinks the First Amendment is clear. "There is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders," he wrote. Roberts argued that the overall cap restricted how many candidates a donor could support. Roberts is right. Spending money to further a cause or politician is a form of expression, of protected speech.
Still, the ugly influence of big money in politics is real.
Representing the four dissenters, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the decision was a blow to American democracy that would further open the floodgates to money that could undermine our political process. Breyer is right on the politics -- money can buy influence or legislation or favorable rules and regulations. This decision probably doesn't make that worse, since every person and entity could already donate an infinite amount to advocacy groups supporting candidates and causes, and do so anonymously. The ruling could help a bit if it drives money away from super PACS and back to campaigns and party committees, because such donations are not anonymous.
Speech, even when expressed via financial contributions, is protected. Anonymity isn't a right. In this clash of law and political reality, transparency may be the only path toward a better system.