Today, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on yet another campaign finance case, McCutcheon v. FEC, taking yet another step toward deregulation in the wake of Citizens United.
In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts, with Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy, struck down aggregate contribution limits to federal candidates, meaning individuals can now give as much as they want to all federal candidates, parties, or PACs combined. (Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the majority decision, but argued the Court should have gone even further by ruling all campaign finance restrictions unconstitutional.)
In the majority decision (PDF), Justice Roberts wrote:
“Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties.”
The minority decision, written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, was scathing. Breyer wrote of the majority:
“Its conclusion rests upon its own, not a record-based, view of the facts…Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission…today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”
What Does This Mean?
The government’s lawyers asserted that preventing corruption, or the appearance of corruption, was a compelling enough interest to warrant contribution limits–in this case, the aggregate limits on contributions to parties, candidates and PACs. Clearly, Roberts and the other Justices in the majority disagreed when they struck those limits down, siding with McCutcheon.
Prior to this case, donors were limited to $123,200 in contributions, $48,600 of which could go to candidates, and the rest to party committees and PACs. Now, big donors aren’t capped on overall contributions, though they are still limited to how much they can give to individual groups or candidates ($2,600 to an individual candidate in this cycle), which is the only real silver lining from this case.
The decision is not much of a victory for campaign finance reformers, however–donors can now make up for individual limits with increased contributions to PACs or party committees, which can then steer at least some of that money to preferred candidates anyway. Considering how many people trust their government these days, the idea that more money doesn’t lead to more corruption doesn’t exactly resonate with the majority of Americans, even if it resonated with the majority of the Justices.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, elections are almost certain to become even more expensive, and dominated even more by big donors. We should start seeing this take place in the next few months; if the first election cycle post-Citizens United provides any guidance, there’s a lot to be worried about.