The Supreme Court overturns aggregate limits on campaign contributions, further opening the political arena to corruption and making it harder for party outsiders to get elected.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, to overturn the aggregate limits on campaign contributions, further opening the door Citizens United unlocked in 2010.
By effectively removing the limits on the combined amount of money a single individual can give to political campaigns, parties and political action committees, the ruling threatens to further flood the political arena with money, making it harder for party outsiders and independents to win office and increasing the potential for big money to corrupt the political system.
This ruling comes at a time when 25 lobbyists have already given $1.85 million to political campaigns. While many of the potential donors have partisan or strategic reasons for making their donations, as Ben Barnes — a Democratic lobbyist-donor that ranked sixth on the Center for Responsive Politics’ list of biggest lobby donors for 2014 — said, “I think anyone could be sanctimonious and say they’re donating for the love of their country, but how you make a living has something to do with it.”
To date, lobbyists are the 13th highest-donating group for contributions in the 2014 campaign cycle. As of Wednesday, a total of $414,356,324 has been raised for the House races, with $177,234,189 being donated to Democratic candidates and $236,651,475 to Republicans. In the Senate, $217,391,890 has been donated, with $116,444,369 going to Democrats and $100,835,078 to Republicans. Individuals made total donations of $224 million for House races, while $150 million came from individuals in Senate races.
Defending money as free speech
While no opinion won a majority in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, five justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — agreed that the aggregate limits should be struck down.
“This Court has identified only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption,” Roberts wrote in his opinion, backed by Scalia, Kennedy and Alito.
“We have consistently rejected attempts to suppress campaign speech based on other legislative objectives. No matter how desirable it may seem, it is not an acceptable governmental objective to ‘level the playing field,’ or to ‘level electoral opportunities,’ or to ‘equalize the financial resources of candidates…’ The First Amendment prohibits such legislative attempts to ‘fine-tune’ the electoral process, no matter how well intentioned.”
Thomas wrote his own opinion, summarily dismissing all limits on political contributions.
Nixon and “soft money”
The dissenting opinion argues that the removal of the aggregate caps would recreate the “soft-money era,” in which unlimited contributions can be funneled through a political party to a candidate. This era was epitomized by former President Richard Nixon’s candidacy, in which the president regularly received campaign funding in exchange for favors — such as $2 million from the Milk Producers Association for Nixon’s support for an increase in milk prices and $1.7 million from individuals who ultimately received ambassadorships.
Nixon collected $60 million in such deals, and a large chunk of this money went to fund anti-Democratic Party activities, including the break-in at the Watergate Hotel. The fallout of this revelation led Congress to introduce the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which established the Federal Election Commission, public campaign funding and contribution limits of initially $1,000 for individuals and $5,000 per organization per candidate (the direct contribution limit for individuals is now $2,600 per federal candidate).
The 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo — which introduced the notion of political spending being equivalent to political “speech” — found it unconstitutional to set a limit on what a candidate can spend on a campaign.
The return of the parties
The reintroduction of unlimited campaign funding to candidates from political parties has potential to make the parties the primary funding source and, accordingly, the primary influence in the campaign cycle. Since 2010, the parties have been out-funded by outside interest groups and forced to deal with a reduced role in the election process. For example, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC spent more than $300 million in the 2012 cycle — more than what the Republican National Convention raised in the same period.
This outside influence has created a situation in which a candidate could run against party-backed candidates. In increasing numbers, Tea Party candidates have challenged party-supported incumbents in primaries, resulting in a situation in which the Tea Party candidate — who won the primary by appealing to the party’s base — lost in a general election due to his or her extreme posture. This has led to a perceived “civil war” in the Republican Party, in which the party’s mainstream faces consistent challenges from the ideologically-opposed Tea Party — both at the ballot box and in regards to the party’s platform. Due to funding disparities, however, the mainstream has been unable to effectively compel order.
Due to McCutcheon, however, a national party could now fundraise with state parties to solicit donations in excess of $1 million. This ousts outside interest groups as the only means of collecting and funneling large donations into campaigns. As the parties can now directly seek out large figure support from mega-donors, and as mega-donors can now make such donations openly, outside interest groups and PACs may lose their coveted role as kingmaker in future elections.
“You all have the freedom to write what you want to write, donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give,” U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters after a meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday.
While Wednesday’s ruling could deal the parties back into prominence in the political system, it could also kick out the class of non-party-endorsed candidates — such as the Tea Party. Additionally, with donors able to freely donate to parties in their own names, the ruling may exasperate the notion of “crony capitalism,” or the sense of campaign money traded for political favors, that already plagues American politics.