Supreme Court Decision Is A Step Back for Campaign Finance Reform

Release Date: 
June 27, 2016

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision vacating the federal bribery conviction of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell.  The Court’s ruling narrowed the scope of federal bribery laws and required clearer jury instructions on the kinds of “official acts” that can be prosecuted when officeholders accept personal gifts from private individuals.  In response, Brenda Wright, Vice President of Policy and Legal Strategies at Demos, issued the following statement:

Once again, our legal system is undermining the public’s confidence in government by failing to protect our democracy from the improper role of money.

“Although today’s Supreme Court decision turns on narrow issues of statutory interpretation, what will resonate for the American public is the sense that once again, our legal system is undermining the public’s confidence in government by failing to protect our democracy from the improper role of money.  In this case, a powerful officeholder accepted enormous personal ‘gifts’ of cash, jewelry, and vacations from someone trying to do business with the state of Virginia.  Such gifts can and should be directly outlawed in every state.  The absence of such laws in Virginia is itself a scandal that need not have happened.

“The larger scandal, however, is the role of big money in election campaigns themselves, through which a tiny donor class exercises outsized sway over elected officials.  Earlier this year, research exposed the fact that just 158 families in the U.S. had provided half of all the money in the U.S. Presidential campaign.  When just 158 families out of the 120 million households in the U.S. have that kind of sway over our electoral process, we lose the ideal of a government responsive to ‘We, the People.’   

This harm to our democratic process started long before today’s Supreme Court decision.  The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United is a big reason that the influence of the 1% on our electoral process has increased dramatically in recent years, and that it sometimes seems as though our democracy has descended into a shouting match between billionaires. 

“But the problem goes back even further: ultimately to the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo which first gave us the dubious principle that unlimited spending on elections is a form of ‘free speech.’  It’s the reason that the richest among us can spend unlimited funds from their own pockets to help elect their candidates of choice; billionaire candidates can bankroll their own campaigns; and Congress, states, and cities can’t cap campaign spending.  This has led to a legacy of political, economic, and racial inequality that persists today.  Just as the people of Virginia are vastly unequal in their ability to give Rolexes to elected officials, Americans have vastly unequal abilities to spend millions of dollars on elections.

“Real solutions to the problem of big spending in elections require the Supreme Court to transform its entire approach to the issue of money in political campaigns and to revisit both Buckley and Citizens United.  A simple ban on large gifts to officeholders can fix the problem the Court created today; but fundamental change in the Court’s overall approach to big money in electoral campaigns is required to overcome the legacy of Buckley and Citizens United and to build an America where the strength of our voices doesn’t depend upon the size of our wallets.”