WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. campaign finance system is so heavily influenced by big-spending interest groups and wealthy individuals that it will take "huge scandals" to change it - and those scandals are looming, Senator John McCain said Tuesday.
McCain, speaking at a Reuters forum on money in politics, gave a blistering critique of U.S. Supreme Court justices over a 2010 ruling that lifted limits on political fundraising and spending by corporations, unions and other non-campaign groups by equating their rights to those of individual citizens.
The decision led to the creation of "Super PACs," political action committees that have had outsized impacts on state and local political campaigns and are changing the face of the 2012 presidential election by dumping roughly $100 million into ads, most of which have attacked candidates.
"What the Supreme Court did is a combination of arrogance, naivete and stupidity the likes of which I have never seen," said McCain, one of the authors of a now partially overturned law that restricted political spending by corporations and other outside groups.
"I promise you, there will be huge scandals," McCain said, "because there's too much money washing around, too much of it we don't know who's behind it and too much corruption associated with that kind of money. There will be major scandals."
The Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission (FEC) case overturned a century of law and, notably, struck down provisions of the 2002 legislation by McCain and Senator Russ Feingold that limited corporations or unions in spending their own funds on independent political advertising.
That decision paved the way for independent groups to rake in and spend unlimited money to try to influence the presidential election, while campaigns continue to be restricted to contributions of $2,500 in the primary season and another $2,500 for the November 6 election.
"What we have done is made a contribution limit a joke," McCain said.
McCain said there is little hope that the current Congress will pass a law to rewind the Supreme Court's ruling.
"A majority of Republicans would vote against it because Republicans are profiting by it" in the battle for the party's presidential nomination, McCain said, "and a lot of Democrats don't want to take it up.
"But we will go out there again and we'll fight again and we'll continue to fight because this system is not fair to the American people."
The Arizona senator, who was the Republican nominee for president in 2008, also took aim at the legal separation between Super PACs and the campaigns they support.
"It's the worst joke in Washington," he said of the idea that PACs are really independent from the campaigns they support. "It's outrageous. It's an insult to anyone's intelligence to say they're not connected."
McCain and others on the panel agreed that the new dynamics of campaign finance have diminished the influence of the political parties.
"What's really happened is, 'soft' money funds that used to go to the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have gone underground, to the third-party groups," said panel member Michael Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
Another panelist, David Keating of the Center for Competitive Politics, defended the wide-open system created by the court's ruling, as well as the justices' reasoning.
"Corporations have (free) speech because they're made up of individuals," he said.
McCain's view of the Supreme Court was echoed by another panelist - former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, who is running an independent, anti-corruption campaign for president.
Roemer and panelist Jane Harman, a former congresswoman from California, called for a system in which donations would be publicly disclosed soon after they were made.
"Sometime, somewhere, someplace we're going to stand up and say that we're going to be free of the big checks," Roemer said, adding that the keys to campaign finance reform are "disclosure ... and limits of the power of an individual check, and I think we're going to have to have some of both."
Additional reporting Alexander Cohen; Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman