The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a federal cap on politicians using campaign funds to reimburse themselves for personal loans made to their own campaigns. The ruling is obviously a win for rich candidates, and means that similarly rich donors and lobbyists will essentially be able to bribe politicians with donations candidates can then pocket.
The 6-3 decision authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and dissented to by the court’s liberal wing was the result of a lawsuit from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) challenging the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s reimbursement $250,000 limit on the grounds that it violated his First Amendment rights.
“By substantially increasing the risk that any candidate loan will never be fully repaid,” Cruz’s lawyers wrote in a brief, the law “forces a candidate to think twice before making those loans in the first place.”
In the ruling, Roberts wrote that the legislation, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act, “no doubt” burdens free speech, and added that the government wasn’t able to provide a sufficient reason for doing so. The “provision burdens core political speech without proper justification,” he concluded.
The Biden administration contended that the limits were necessary, with Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart arguing in court that the law “imposes insubstantial burdens on the financing of electoral campaigns and it targets a practice that has significant corruptive potential,” according to CNN.
Writing in dissent, Justice Elena Kagan warned that the Supreme Court now “greenlights all the sordid bargains Congress thought right to stop.”
“Political contributions that will line a candidate’s own pockets, given after his election to office, pose a special danger of corruption,” she wrote, explaining the rationale for the legislation. “The candidate has a more-than-usual interest in obtaining the money (to replenish his personal finances), and is now in a position to give something in return. The donors well understand his situation, and are eager to take advantage of it. In short, everyone’s incentives are stacked to enhance the risk of dirty dealing.”
The court’s ruling, she concluded, “can only bring this country’s political system into further disrepute.”
Advocates of campaign finance reform, like the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, opposed the court’s ruling. “It’s another blow to McCain-Feingold,” Tara Malloy, one of the group’s top lawyers, told CNN. “But it seems to be more of a death by a thousand cuts instead of a body blow.”
Past instances of the high court curtailing the influence of the 2002 law include its 2010 Citizens United ruling, which cleared the way for unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions under the guise of free speech, as well as its 2014 ruling eliminating the cap on the total amount an individual can donate during a campaign.