Another issue, which is my main topic today, is less about Congress and the executive branch, and more about the other branch — the Supreme Court. On October 8, the Court is going to take up the next big campaign finance case, McCutcheon v. FEC, a challenge to the overall contribution limits for individual donors to candidates and parties, limits that were institutionalized in the Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976 that undergirds Court jurisprudence on campaign finance.
McCutcheon refers to Shaun McCutcheon, who has given a lot of money to Republicans and joined with the Republican National Committee to bring the suit. Their argument starts with the idea that Citizens United’s reasoning — that limits on independent spending by corporations violated the First Amendment — should also apply to limits on what individuals can contribute, in the aggregate, to candidates and parties. Undergirding the argument is the idea that since the Citizens United ruling, parties and candidates have been put at a disadvantage compared with corporations, other groups, and individuals who are allowed to flood political campaigns with money through independent expenditures. Now, the argument goes, we need to compensate by freeing up the parties and candidates to raise more money.
McCutcheon does not directly challenge the limits on individual contributions to individual candidates and parties, just the overall limits per cycle on what individuals can contribute to candidates and parties. As such, it can seem more reasonable on the surface: If I can only give $2,500 to any candidate, why shouldn’t I be able to give $2,500 to as many candidates as I want? Right now, individuals are limited in this election cycle to contributing $48,600 to all federal candidates and $74,600 to party committees and PACs.
But here is the brutal reality if the Court agrees with McCutcheon: Presidential candidates, House and Senate party leaders, and individual members of Congress could then form joint fundraising committees with national and state party committees and leverage contributions from individuals into huge sums to support their campaigns — maximums of more than $1 million for individual presidential candidates, more than $3.5 million for committees formed by congressional leaders, and nearly $200,000 for individual congressional candidates. We know, based on past experience, that presidential candidates, congressional leaders, and candidates would quickly spring into action to create the maximum number of joint fundraising committees and maximize the number of $3 million donors — and, of course, every candidate and office holder would know who was ponying up the amounts.
What if Congress then moved to outlaw joint fundraising committees (as if that could really happen!)? It would make the massive contributions a bit more cumbersome; donors (or their accountants) would have to write a lot of individual checks to individual party committees and candidates, instead of one or two big checks. The candidates and officeholders would still know clearly who had given the big bucks — and would open their office doors happily to them when they wanted or needed something from the government.