Despite Supreme Court decision on campaign finance, the debate continues

April 13, 2014
Peter Wong

U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader said Wednesday it may be only a matter of time, based on its latest decision, before the U.S. Supreme Court drops all limits on federal campaign contributions.

Based on Wednesday’s decision and a 2010 case, Schrader said, “the court is gearing up for taking away all contribution limits to candidates. Then it’s going to be even worse, when a sugar daddy who wants to fund your campaign — or fund one against you — can spend unlimited amounts of money.”

Schrader, a Democrat from Canby who represents Oregon’s 5th District, has sponsored several attempts to amend the U.S. Constitution so that campaign contributions — particularly from corporations — are not regarded as the equivalent of free speech.

“This latest Supreme Court decision will draw a little attention to it,” Schrader said, although he conceded it was unlikely to advance in the Republican-controlled House during an election year. “Basically, now, rich people can buy and sell Congress.”

But a Portland lawyer defended Wednesday’s decision by a divided court to strike down an overall limit of $123,200 that a person can contribute to federal candidates, political parties and political action committees during a two-year election cycle. The limit consisted of $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to others.

“I have always felt that the aggregate limit went way beyond congressional authority,” said John DiLorenzo, the lawyer who argued the case that led the Oregon Supreme Court in 1997 to overturn state limits on campaign contributions.

The 5-4 decision let stand an individual limit of $2,600 that a person can given to a single candidate or candidate committee in one election. Primary and general elections are counted separately.

If an individual limit is justified to avert corruption, DiLorenzo said, “how can you corrupt anyone if you are giving contributions within the limits to a variety of candidates? Why should you be prohibited from giving to more than 20 members, if you choose to?”

Congress limited contributions to federal campaigns in 1974. The Supreme Court upheld those limits in 1976. The original limit for an individual donation was $1,000 per candidate per election, but a 2002 law increased it to $2,000 and adjusted it for inflation every two years.

The 2002 law also set limits for contributions to parties and political action committees, and restricted corporate and union spending.

But the court has loosened limits in a series of decisions dating back to 2007. The most notable was in 2010, when in the Citizens United case, a divided court loosened restrictions on corporate and union spending.

“My first reaction is that money continues to talk in elections,” said Rick Hartwig of Salem, chairman of the Marion County Democratic Central Committee. “This ruling puts democracy at a disadvantage. It’s just a further erosion when money can buy you the democratic process.”

Marion-Polk Move to Amend plans a protest next week. It is the local affiliate of a national movement that supports a constitutional amendment against legal treatment of corporations as persons.

“Where is this court taking our democracy?” said Kirk Leonard of Salem, who spoke for Marion-Polk Move to Amend. “They are saying that individuals cannot have limits even though Congress has established limits on money in politics for more than 100 years. The court is blowing them out of the water.”

But Fred VanNatta of Salem saw Wednesday’s ruling differently.

VanNatta was the lead plaintiff in a 1997 case, argued by DiLorenzo, that led the Oregon Supreme Court to strike down state limits on campaign contributions. The limits, which voters approved in 1994 and were in effect during the 1996 election cycle, restricted individual and other contributions to $500 for statewide candidates and $100 for legislative candidates.

He said money is the equivalent of volunteer time.

“If you have a choice of giving $500 to my preferred candidate, or two days of your time, I’d take your time,” VanNatta said. “You talking to someone to vote for my candidate is a lot more influential than me taking your money to buy advertising telling people to vote for my candidate.”

VanNatta has argued that because they can mobilize and finance volunteers, labor unions and other organizations have an advantage over business interests. Eliminating contribution limits, he said, levels the field for businesses.

“The U.S. Supreme Court got it half right in this decision,” VanNatta said

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