Chief Justice of the United States, John G. Roberts Jr. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
If the Supreme Court moves to strike down certain campaign finance limits this term, as many expect the Roberts Court will do, could the conservative majority also pave the way for dismantling a whole host of anti-bribery and campaign finance laws across the country?
This week, when the court convenes for its new term, justices will hear oral arguments for McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that challenges the aggregate contribution limits from individuals to traditional political committees.
Conservative legal strategists, including one of the groups that successfully propelled the original Citizens United decision, would like to use the McCutcheon case to go beyond the issue at hand. Just as Citizens United morphed from a case about restrictions on corporate-funded campaign movies into a decision that removed limits on all corporate and union spending on campaign expenditures, right-wing attorneys are hoping to harness McCutcheon to redefine how the government regulates multiple forms of corruption. If the conservative legal groups are successful, the ramifications could be widespread.
The case this week originates with Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman and frequent GOP donor who wants to overturn the FEC’s restrictions on how much one person can give to federal candidates and political parties every two years. Under current FEC guidelines, an individual’s total giving can amount to no more than $48,600 in donations to candidates and $74,600 in donations to political parties—for a total of $123,200. He is joined by the Republican National Committee in arguing that the the biennial cap should be removed.
Though McCutcheon isn’t challenging the limit one may give to a single committee—currently $2,600—proponents of existing law, like the Sunlight Foundation, argue that removing the aggregate cap will lead to wealthy donors’ spending millions of dollars on dozens of campaign accounts, and would amount to a new system where candidates will solicit seven-figure contributions that are bundled through multiple campaign committees.
Under current, post–Citizens United law, Super PACs funded with unlimited contributions may not coordinate in any way with candidates. McCutcheon would unravel the campaign finance system one step further by allowing individuals to make hefty donations to accounts that work directly with candidates. Further, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s attorney, who has been granted the ability to make oral arguments in the case, would like to press even beyond McCutcheon’s initial demands and strike down contribution limits for candidate accounts altogether.
The modern campaign finance system is defined by the seminal case Buckley v. Valeo, which in 1976 determined that candidates can spend unlimited amounts, but legislation to cap donation amounts is important to safeguard against undue influence. The decision declared that Congress was well within its power to enact “contribution ceilings,” which the court held were “a necessary legislative concomitant to deal with the reality or appearance of corruption inherent in a system permitting unlimited financial contributions.”