The US Supreme Court may be poised to strike down one of the few remaining campaign finance laws when it reconvenes next month, potentially lending even greater influence to wealthy donors in the wake of the court’s landmark Citizens United ruling.
Both Republican and Democratic politicians increasingly rely on a small number of the wealthiest one percent of Americans to fund their campaign efforts. The funding, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, stems from the “elite class that serves as the gatekeepers of public office in the United States.”
On October 8, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments related to whether “aggregate limits” - or restrictions on how much money a donor can directly provide a candidate for Congress or party committees during a two-year election season - is in violation of free speech.
The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), was brought forth by Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been granted 30 minutes to present an oral argument to the court next month.
McCutcheon, also a Republican, said he is opposed to the current cap of $123,200 which donors are permitted to give every two years to federal candidates, political parties, and political action committees (PACs).
Current law permits individuals to donate $2,500 per election to federal candidates, $5,000 per calendar year to any non-party political committee, and $30,800 per calendar year to a national party committee. Those limits have not been challenged in the case by McCutcheon and McConnell.
McCutcheon v. FEC has been portrayed as a sequel to the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. In that controversial decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “independent” spending by corporations, labor unions, and other associations on election races was protected by free speech.
Wealthy donors hoping for political influence may now provide millions of dollars to Super PACs and other organizations that buy commercial space and work to influence the public. But they are forbidden from donating more than $48,600 total to all members of Congress, or more than $74,600 to party committees.
If the conservative-leaning court sides with McCutcheon and McConnell, financial backers would be allowed to donate nearly four million dollars to part committees and candidates. The money, according to David Savage of The Los Angeles Times, would then be funneled to races the party sees fit.
“It would be terrible for our democracy…if one politician could directly solicit $3.6 million from a single donor,” said Lawrence Norden, an election law expert with the Brennan Center in New York. “That is 70 times the median income for an American family. It would mean a tiny, tiny group of donors would wield unprecedented power and influence.”
Pundits widely expect the changes to be put in place because of the similarities between this case and Citizens United, when five of the Republican-appointed justices decided to eliminate spending limits and the four Democratically-appointed dissenting.
“If the Supreme Court reverses its past position and strikes down the long-standing aggregate contribution limits, it will open the door wide open to corruption of our federal officeholders and government decisions,” said Fred Wertheimer, a supporter of restrictions on campaign funding.
Such a decision is expected to have a partisan impact, as well. Republican campaign committees have supported McConnell in his years-long fight to eliminate finance restrictions, while House Democrats have spoken out against the case. US President Obama specifically criticized the Citizens United ruling in his 2010 State of the Union address, saying the decision would “open the floodgates for special interests.”
Some have denied that McCutcheon v. FEC would be advantageous to one side or the other, while Sunlight Foundation researcher Lee Drutman told the Times: “The data shows there are more big donors on the right than on the left.”
Yet Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer for the New Yorker, wrote that such data could simply be irrelevant.
“Citizens United was not an aberration for this Court,” he wrote. “It emerged from a definite view about the intersection of campaigns and free speech. The Justices in the majority are engaging in a long-term project to deregulate campaigns. A blessing on unlimited aggregate contributions is the next logical step for them to take - and they have five votes.”