On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision in McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission (FEC) that will further tilt the balance of political influence in favor of the wealthy. The issue at hand was the limit on individual political contributions to federal candidates, political parties, and political committees, challenged by Shaun McCutcheon of Alabama following the 2012 election cycle. In a 5-4 decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito with concurrence from Justice Thomas, the Court eliminated aggregate spending limits from individual contributors.
Congress amended the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974 to place limits on individual contributions following the Watergate scandal. Not only was the amount capped that one person could give directly to a candidate, party, or political action committee (PAC) during any two-year election cycle; there was an additional cap on the aggregate amount an individual could give to a collection of candidates or PACs. These caps were upheld in a 1976 Supreme Court decision, Buckley v Valeo. At that time, and in subsequent cases, the Court recognized the Government’s right to restrict campaign spending. The intent has been “to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption,” as Chief Justice Roberts writes, a position with which the modern Court agrees.
However, the majority took a very narrow view of the “appearance of corruption.” Roberts cited the 2010 Citizens United decision (authored by Justice Kennedy) that “Ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption.” Rather, in the majority’s opinion, corruption would require a quid pro quo, or at least the appearance of it.
Wednesday’s decision was a foregone conclusion following Citizens United. In that ruling, the Court determined that limits on contributions to independent political action committees, so-called Super PACs, violated the First Amendment. Super PACs, in theory, do not work in concert with candidates, instead independently generating awareness of candidates or political issues, often through print, TV, and radio ads. Since 2010, corporations, unions, and individuals have been able to donate as much as they want to these Super PACs.
Aware of the decision and the successful argument that equated campaign spending with free speech, Shaun McCutcheon made a calculated decision to donate slightly under the aggregate limits to candidates and PACs during the 2012 cycle. He then filed a complaint with the FEC that he had wished to donate the politically-significant amount of $1,776 to each of an additional 12 candidates but was prevented by the aggregate limits. This, he alleged, violated his First Amendment rights to free speech.
McCutcheon eliminates the aggregate limits on campaign spending. It is conceivable that had the base limits been challenged, they too may have been struck down, as Justice Thomas advocated in his concurring opinion.
The decision has already been lauded by the Republican National Committee (RNC), who McCutcheon claimed would have been a beneficiary of his financial largesse during the 2012 cycle barring the aggregate limits. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus issued a statement Wednesday, saying he was “proud that the RNC led the way in bringing this case and pleased that the Court agreed that limits on how many candidates or committees a person may support unconstitutionally burden core First Amendment political activities.”
Priebus has reason to be pleased. The overwhelming majority of super-donors support Republican candidates and PACs. And as reported by Al Jazeera, with Wednesday’s lifting of aggregate limits, the maximum individual contribution spread among available candidates and PACs went from about $123,000 for the 2014 cycle to a theoretical $3.5 million.
Public reaction from Alaskans has so far been muted, one of the exceptions being a statement released by Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage). In part, it reads,
We began down this unfortunate path with the Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate campaign donations. Now wealthy individuals, intent on influencing elections, can contribute huge sums of money to an unlimited number of federal candidates or political parties. This corrupts the political process and strengthens the influence of billionaires and millionaires. This decision is a blow to working families all across the country.
McCutcheon will, in all probability, have a dramatic and disproportionate impact in Alaska, where television and radio ad time is some of the cheapest in the country. A little money goes a long way. One need only look to the local impact of Citizens United for an idea of how McCutcheon will play out.
During the 2014 cycle, the Super PAC Americans for Prosperity, heavily funded by the conservative Koch brothers, has spent over five hundred thousand dollars attacking first-term Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) in a variety of ads. Conversely, the Alaska AFL-CIO has flexed its young Super PAC muscle in Sen. Begich’s defense. The race is heavily targeted by the RNC because Begich is a freshman seeking re-election in a state that either leans red or is solidly red, depending upon which political pundit one favors.
Wednesday’s ruling means that, in addition to the unlimited amounts of money wealthy donors can give to Super PACs, those same donors, will only have to choose which candidates they support based on the limitations of their own wallets. In short, Outside donors can give to their own potential representatives and also send money up to ours.
Expect the airwaves to get awfully crowded.