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High Court's Campaign Finance Ruling Has Critics Dismayed


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block in Dallas.


And in Washington, this is Robert Siegel.

With the campaign season just around the bend, the Supreme Court today issued a decision that will likely put even more emphasis on the role of money in politics. Elsewhere in today's program, Nina Totenberg reports on that ruling. We're going to hear one reaction to it now.

In a five-to-four decision, the justices struck down limits on the total contributions an individual may make towards candidates or party committees. Single donors are still limited to spending $2,600 per candidate in primary and general elections. But now, with no limit on overall contributions, they can contribute that amount to as many candidates as they want.

Chief Justice John Roberts cited the First Amendment in his opinion. He wrote this: The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse. Well, critics said that this ruling undermines democracy.

And for more on that perspective, we are joined now by Adam Lioz, who's with the public policy organization Demos. Welcome to the program.

ADAM LIOZ: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: How does this ruling undermine democracy?

LIOZ: Well, what it really does is give more and more power to a tiny set of folks who can afford to give hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars into political campaigns. So that limit that you noted was already twice the amount of money that the average American family earns in a year.

SIEGEL: But in 2012, Sheldon Adelson and his wife famously spent at least $98 million on the election, largely though superPACs, which aren't covered by these limits. So given that one can do that, how much difference will this ruling make?

LIOZ: Sure. Well, Citizens United was the decision that let the Adelsons give an unlimited amount of money to superPACs. And that dealt one blow to our democracy. And McCutcheon is really another body blow.

SIEGEL: That's today's ruling, the McCutcheon decision.

LIOZ: Yes, because what this says is that a very small number of people can get involved in shaping the candidate pool very early on in the process. If you're going to run for office, the first question you have to ask yourself is how much money can I raise and where can I get it. And right now what that means is you have to have a network of wealthy donors, like Sheldon Adelson and his friends, to go to to ask for a thousand dollars, $2,000 or more. So this decision will give that small network of wealthy donors more and more power to decide who can run for office in the first place, effectively.

SIEGEL: So you think this will make a big difference.

LIOZ: Absolutely. I think it's going to be terrible for our democracy.

SIEGEL: Does this mean that the mix of people running for federal office would be any different or they change their strategies?

LIOZ: Yes, I think we've seen more women, more people of color get into the game and run for office recently. And this decision will run counter to that trend, because the donor class is overwhelmingly wealthy, white and male. And so, we're going to see folks who can have access to those networks of donors have an even greater edge in deciding who can run for office and who wins.

SIEGEL: Do you see either a Republican or a Democratic bias in the changes?

LIOZ: Well, I think this decision is biased in favor of the one percent and against the rest of us. And those people have different views than does the general public. There's been some interesting studies recently that show that the wealthy really prioritize different issues, especially on the economy. And that means that they get to set the agenda in Washington and state capitals across the country.

SIEGEL: But in addition to, say, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, there's also George Soros. There are very, very rich people who give to Democrats.

LIOZ: There are very wealthy donors on all sides of various issues. But when it comes to fundamental issues like should we have a minimum wage that keeps people out of poverty, we've seen and evidence shows that the very wealthy overall differ sharply from the general public, and don't support economic mobility and opportunity to build a strong and diverse middle-class.

SIEGEL: What about the First Amendment argument that Chief Justice Roberts made, that if they can, indeed, limit how many candidates you can give money to, then perhaps they could limit how many candidates a newspaper might endorse?

LIOZ: This decision is not about limiting the number of people that anyone can support. What it is about limiting the amount that a very wealthy person can amplify his or her voice over the voices of her fellow citizens and drown us out in a sea of campaign cash.

SIEGEL: Well, let me extend his analogy. A newspaper could run editorials every day. They could run front-page editorials. They could use inflammatory language in support of someone. But that's still covered by the First Amendment.

LIOZ: Sure. And we believe that there's a big difference between the content of what you put out there and your ability to purchase amplification of that content. And so, no one is saying that you shouldn't be up to criticize incumbent candidates, the content of your speech should be protected by the First Amendment. But just because you happen to be successful or even just lucky in the economic sphere, doesn't mean you should be able to buy a million dollar megaphone, amplify your voice and purchase political power.

SIEGEL: Adam Lioz, thank you very much for talking with us.

LIOZ: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Adam Lioz is a lawyer and policy advocate with the public policy organization Demos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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