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Supreme Court Hears GOP Challenge to Political Donation Limits

On Tuesday, the high court will hear oral arguments in a case that campaign finance reformers are calling

(Image: Pillars reflect via Shutterstock)

The 2012 elections were the most expensive elections in history, thanks in part to the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates for unlimited donations to independent groups like Super-PACs that influence elections with flashy campaigns and attack ads.

On Tuesday, the high court will hear oral arguments in a case that campaign finance reformers are calling “the next Citizens United” because the Republican-led legal challenge could erode one of the last protections preventing wealthy donors from influencing elections and seeking political favors from politicians.

Shaun McCutcheon is a wealthy businessman from Alabama. In 2012, he wanted to donate thousands of dollars to Republican candidate committees as well as the Republican National Committee, but federal caps on the total amount of money an individual can donate directly to candidates and party committees in a two-year election cycle prevented him from making those donations.

McCutcheon complained to the RNC, and, arguing that Republicans should be able to take McCutcheon’s campaign cash, the RNC and McCutcheon sued the Federal Elections Commission to challenge its aggregate limits on individual contributions to candidates, party committees and political committees that donate to such groups.

McCutcheon and the RNC are not challenging the limits on individual donations to particular candidates, but rather the limits on the total amount a wealthy individual can give to candidates and committees during an election cycle. Under current law, individuals can give up to an inflation-adjusted $48,600 to individual candidates for federal office and their committees, and up to another $74,600 to national party committees, state committees and political action committees.

McCutcheon hit the federal limit in 2012 with donations to Republican candidates and committees, but claims that he wanted to give more money to a dozen additional GOP candidates and the RNC. The First Amendment, he argues, guarantees his right to spend his own money in whatever way he chooses.

A coalition of progressive groups and campaign finance watchdogs, however, argue that removing caps on the total amount of money that wealthy donors can give directly to candidates and committees would give the rich and powerful even more sway over lawmakers and further erode the integrity of American democracy.

“Our constitution’s authors did not envision a government of corporations and the wealthy – they envisioned a government of the people. This case threatens the very foundations of that system,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way (PFAW). “A democracy where the voices of everyday Americans are overpowered by the amplified voices of the rich and powerful is not the kind of democracy Americans want or expect.”

If the plaintiffs win, McCutcheon would theoretically be able to donate more than $2.4 million to all Republican candidates, $194,000 the national party, and $1 million to Republican state committees, according to Baker.

If the Supreme Court strikes down aggregate limits, federal and presidential candidates would be able to use joint fundraising committees to raise large sums from individual donors. Two or more candidates or party committees work together to form joint fundraising committees, which have been used for years to solicit contributions from individual donors that are much larger than the amount that donors can give to an individual candidate or committee.

Without aggregate limits, for example, the maximum amount a single donor can give to a presidential candidate becomes $1.2 million when that candidate takes advantage of joint fundraising committees, according to Democracy 21, another campaign finance reform group that supports aggregate limits.

In 2012, donors giving maximum party contributions to the Romney’s joint fundraising committee totaled 721, and 536 maxed out contributions to Obama’s joint fundraising committee.

Unlike the large donors who hid their identities and political motives by donating to shadowy nonprofit groups in the last election, the identities of these donors would be publically disclosed. But disclosure does not provide comfort to supporters of aggregate limits for individual donors. Baker told reporters last week that politicians would know exactly to whom they owe political favors.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Democracy 21, PFAW and other groups argue that the high court has a “compelling reason” to uphold existing aggregate limits to fight political corruption and the public perception of political corruption. The legitimacy of a democracy, they argue, is the belief by voters that they are being fairly represented, regardless of the amount of money they have to throw at politicians.

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