Teachers’ Unions Slam Campaign-Finance Ruling

By Mark Walsh — April 03, 2014 3 min read
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The teachers’ unions on Wednesday criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down limits on aggregate campaign contributions to federal candidates, political parties, and political action committees.

The heads of both unions issued statements arguing that the court’s 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (Case No. 12-536) will give wealthy donors greater influence over politics.

“With this ruling, the voices of everyday Americans have gotten squashed again,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in her statement. “We once had rules that allowed everyone a fair shot at the American dream and access to democracy, but now access to government is reserved for the most powerful and influential with millions and millions of dollars to buy elections.”

Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, said in his statement that “no kindergarten teacher, school nurse, librarian, food service worker, or school bus driver can compete with the deep pockets of billionaires.”

Both of the politically active unions had filed or joined friend-of-the-court briefs (AFT here; NEA here) in support of the federal aggregate-contribution limits, which for this two-year election cycle allowed any individual to contribute no more than $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to PACs or political parties.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the limits, with a plurality holding that they don’t further the government’s interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance, and thus they infringe the free speech rights of donors.

It was the high court’s first campaign-finance ruling since its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which upheld unlimited independent political expenditures by corporations, labor unions, and so-called super political action committees.

While unions such as AFT and NEA in theory could spend more from their own treasuries under Citizens United, recent experience has shown that the vast increase in political spending since the ruling has come from super PACS, most of which have spent in support of Republican candidates.

Writing for the plurality in McCutcheon, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said, “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

His opinion was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the outcome, but said he would also overrule the part of the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo that upheld a base limit on contributions to a single candidate. Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion declined to disturb the base limit, currently $2,600 each for federal primary and general elections. Also left undisturbed is the $5,000 annual limit on any individual’s contribution to a non-party PAC, such as those of the teachers’ unions.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing the dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, said the decision “creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.”

“Taken together with Citizens United ... , 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.”

In their briefs in the case, the teachers’ unions stressed arguments joined by the FEC and other progressive groups and campaign-reform advocates that removing the aggregate contribution limits would allow wealthy donors to circumvent the base limit on contributions.

But Chief Justice Roberts said in his opinion that circumvention hasn’t been a serious problem under FEC rules and the Congress could take steps to further prevent it without the aggregate limits.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.