The court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., addresses when and how candidates can be reimbursed for personal loans they make to their campaigns. Federal rules previously prohibited candidates from withdrawing more than $250,000 in reimbursement from their campaigns, if that money came from donations made after Election Day. The logic is obvious. “Political contributions that will line a candidate’s pockets, given after their election, present a particular danger of corruption,” Judge Elena Kagan explained in a dissent. “The candidate has a greater than usual interest in getting the money (to replenish his personal finances), and is now able to give something back. Donors understand its situation well and are eager to take advantage of it. In short, everyone’s incentives are stacked to increase the risk of a dirty sale. On the contrary, the rules, allowing for a quarter of a million dollars in post-election reimbursements, were too weak.
Chief Justice Roberts dismissed those concerns, arguing that such regulations burden candidates who fund their own campaigns and, therefore, their First Amendment rights. In fact, the rules the court overturned limited the extent to which donors — not candidates — could help. Candidates were free to spend as much of their personal wealth as they wished on their political careers; they just couldn’t expect others to pay them back.
Chief Justice Roberts argued that “we are talking about the repayment of a loan, not a gift”, pointing out that donations only “restore the candidate to the status quo ante”. This reasoning is either naïve or cynical. Making someone whole and simply handing them money is economically equivalent. Either way, a politician obtains direct financial benefits from a donor.
Don’t worry, argued the Chief Justice. Federal law — for now — prohibits donors from contributing more than $2,900 to a campaign, so the risk of corruption remains limited. In the real world, $2,900 paid into a personal bank account is no small thing. And big fundraisers who “bundle” other people’s contributions have become very adept at legally raising much larger sums for candidates, as well as making it clear to whom those candidates owe.
Congress passed landmark campaign finance legislation in 2002, after decades of declining confidence in government. Supreme Court conservatives have repeatedly dismantled it, relying on a tenuous confusion between money and speech. Monday’s ruling is another chapter in that sad story, the moral of which is this: When big donors foot a candidate’s bill, it’s usually the public who pays.