Supreme Court question: What is corruption?

Today’s Supreme Court decision that appears to open the floodgates of campaign contributions is rooted in this question: What is corruption?

The word appears 124 times in today’s opinion.

In its ruling today, the court said the limits are arbitrary because they set a point at which a campaign contribution is corruption.

“But Congress’ selection of a $5,200 base limit indicates its belief that contributions of that amount or less do not create a cognizable risk of corruption. If there is no corruption concern in giving nine candidates up to $5,200 each, it is difficult to understand how a tenth candidate can be regarded as corruptible if given $1,801,” Chief Justice John Roberts said.

Moreover, the only type of corruption that Congress may target is quid pro quo corruption. Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption.

Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends largesums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties. Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. 310, 359. The line between quid pro quo corruption and general influence must be respected in order to safeguard basic First Amendment rights, and the Court must “err on the side of protecting political speech rather than suppressing it.”

But Justice Stephen Breyer said the problem is Roberts defines corruption as quid pro quo — a political favor in exchange for some cash.

In Breyer’s view, anything that lessens the influence of the general voter by increasing the influence of the monied is, by definition, corruption:

Corruption breaks the constitutionally necessary “chain of communication” between the people and their representatives. It derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie.

Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard. Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point. That is one reason why the Court has stressed the constitutional importance of Congress’ concern that a few large donations not drown out the voices of the many.

The “appearance of corruption” can make matters worse. It can lead the public to believe that its efforts to communicate with its representatives or to help sway public opinion have little purpose. And a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether.

Here is today’s full opinion.