The far-right Supreme Court majority has issued yet another ruling undermining efforts to address corrupt dealings through campaign contributions. This time, the Court has given special interests an opening to enrich the personal wealth of elected officials. The May 2022 case is Federal Elections Commission v. Ted Cruz For Senate.
What did Ted Cruz do?
Ted Cruz’s 2018 reelection campaign was a lot more competitive than many people had expected. That meant it cost a lot more. The day before Election Day, Cruz lent his campaign $260,000 for a quick cash infusion. And he won the election.
So how did he get his $260,000 back? After all, the campaign didn’t have a lot of money to spare.
He did it by using campaign funds that came in after his victory.
Why is that a problem?
Using post-election donations to pay back a loan from the candidate raises special ethical issues. Donors know they are backing the winner, someone who will be in a position of power and influence for several years. They also know their donation will be used to enrich the candidate personally, unlike ordinary campaign contributions.
To limit the obvious appearance of corruption, Congress limits how much a nominee can reimburse themselves after the election. For the first $250,000 of the loan, the campaign can pay it back any time. But for anything beyond that, the campaign has 20 days after the election to pay it back, and it can only use contributions that came in before Election Day. After that 20-day period, nothing above $250,000 can be repaid; that part of the loan gets reclassified as a contribution by the candidate to their own campaign.
But Cruz was out $260,000. So he went to court and argued that the $250,000 limit violated his constitutional rights.
How did the far-right Supreme Court rule?
The case was decided in the 6-3 alignment we have come to expect. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett.
They ruled that the $250,000 violates the First Amendment by burdening candidates who want to fund their campaigns through personal loans. They rejected the argument that the limit serves the interest of preventing corruption, which they define narrowly to exclude buying influence and access. According to the majority, the fact that individual contributions are capped at $2,900 per election already prevents corruption, so the government needs to show a need for this “additional” regulation.
What did the dissenting justices say?
Justice Kagan wrote the dissent, joined by Breyer and Sotomayor. She pointed out the obvious corruption when a winning candidate with a “gaping” hole in their personal finances solicits donations that will then be redirected straight to the candidate. She describes the “crooked exchanges” Congress set out to address:
And as they paid him, so he will pay them. In the coming months and years, they receive government benefits—maybe favorable legislation, maybe prized appointments, maybe lucrative contracts. The politician is happy; the donors are happy. The only loser is the public. It inevitably suffers from government corruption.
Kagan pointed out that political contributions “that will line a candidate’s own pockets, given after his election to office, pose a special danger of corruption.” Everyone has an incentive for what she rightly calls “dirty dealing.”
She lamented that the majority “greenlights all the sordid bargains Congress thought right to stop.” The decision “can only bring this country’s political system into further disrepute.”