USA Today Reporters Distort, Lament SCOTUS Ruling in Campaign Finance Case

April 2nd, 2014 2:55 PM

USA Today's Richard Wolf and Fredreka Schouten wasted no time this morning distorting the Supreme Court's April 2 ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, which essentially holds that a provision of federal law setting an aggregate limit on an individual's campaign contributions violates the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.

Wolf and Schouten, however, practically endorsed the lament of liberal detractors, opening their story with a loaded lead paragraph that had nothing to do with the merits of the case and followed up by weaving a narrative focused on the "bitter national debate" about campaign finance rather than strictly adhering to the constitutional merits of the Court's ruling. 

Here's how they kicked things off (emphasis mine):

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court took another step Wednesday toward giving wealthy donors more freedom to influence federal elections.

Let's pause a second. At issue is NOT the influencing of elections but being able to donate to candidates that you support without an arbitrary cap on aggregate donations preventing you from doing so.

Of course, money only indirectly influences elections by providing the financial fuel for voter registration efforts, get-out-the-vote campaigns, and, yes, issue advertising. And ultimately, all those things don't win elections, votes do. The slickest advertising money can buy is no guarantee of victory, as numerous failed candidates and big-money donors can attest.

Additionally, as Wolf and Schouten noted deep in the article (emphasis mine)

But opponents of government limits contended few if any donors or committees would bother to concoct such a system.

Nearly 1.3 million people donated more than $200 to federal candidates, party committees and PACs last year, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. Only about 600 hit the maximum donation limit to federal candidates in the 2012 elections, the center found.

McCutcheon and his allies also argued that lifting the cumulative cap on contributions might help candidates and national parties counter the rising influence of new "super PACs." Those entities, ushered in partly by Citizens United and a separate lower court decision in 2010, can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money independent of particular candidates.

Very few people up until now have maxed out their contributions, and it's unlikely we'll see a glut of people eager to spend to the hilt who haven't done so already, although, it is true that with a new avenue for increased spending open, super PACs may find the fundraising environment a bit more competitive.

Anyway, back to the story (again, emphasis mine)

The justices ruled 5-4, in a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, that limits on the total amount of money donors can give to all candidates, committees and political parties are unconstitutional. The decision leaves in place the base limits on what can be given to each individual campaign.

"The government has a strong interest, no less critical to our democratic system, in combatting corruption and its appearance," Roberts wrote. "We have, however, held that this interest must be limited to a specific kind of corruption — quid pro quo corruption — in order to ensure that the government's efforts do not have the effect of restricting the First Amendment right of citizens to choose who shall govern them."

The decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which came nearly six months after it was argued at the beginning of the court's term in October, marks the latest round in the bitter national debate over the role of money in American politics. It's the most important campaign-finance ruling since the high court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts independently to influence elections.

Again you'll notice the "influence elections" language. I repeat my objection from before: voters decide election contests, not donors. But notice another way their language subtly colors the story: in Wolf and Schouten's telling, the Supreme Court is a political principal which has "allow[ed]" "unlimited amounts" from corporations and unions.

This, of course, serves the narrative arc of the campaign-finance melodrama that liberals script.  In point of fact, however, the Supreme Court rebuked Congress for overstepping its constitutional bounds by violating First Amendment protections on free speech. 

Speaking of which, notice how the Supreme Court correspondents paint liberal critics of the ruling -- both on the bench and in liberal interest groups -- as motivated by pure motives centered on the "public interest":

The court's four liberal justices dissented vehemently from Roberts' ruling. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the minority, said the decision "understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions."

"Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, today's decision eviscerates our nation's campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve," Breyer wrote.

The case pitted the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech – which the justices previously have equated with spending money in elections – against the government's interest in preventing political corruption.


Defenders of government limits have warned that so-called "joint fundraising committees" now will be able to funnel up to $3.6 million from one donor to any vulnerable candidates.

"With its Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, the Supreme Court has turned our representative system of government into a sandbox for America's billionaires and millionaires to play in," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the public interest group Democracy 21. "The court's decisions have empowered a new class of American political oligarchs."

But what of the old class of American political oligarchs, the liberal broadcast and print news media, which skew leftward and which remain strongly influential in the nation's political discourse?

Wolf and Schouten never consider the fact that the liberal media itself play a powerful role in "influencing elections" despite not spending one dime on actual campaign ads, and, in fact, profiting handsomely from selling air time for them.

Be it liberal or conservative -- and make no mistake, the vast majority of the news media is liberal -- the media are to political candidates at the very best free advertising and the very worst a hostile entity bent on drumming a negative beat. To support campaign finance limitations does, in effect, support the amplification of the power of the legacy news media over both candidates and issue-advocacy groups.

The interests of a robust political debate call for maximum liberty for political debate and discussion, not the cartelization of that discussion through a regulatory scheme which protects the oligarchs in the media.