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McCutcheon v. FEC: Supreme Court Strikes Down Overall Campaign Contribution Limits

McCutcheon v. FEC

The US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Wednesday to strike down overall federal campaign spending limits, opening the door for wealthy Americans to spend as much as they like to influence the outcome of US elections.

The Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission removes overall limits on how much individuals may donate to candidates, parties and political action committees (PACs) during the course of any two-year federal election cycle.

In the majority decision, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that aggregate limits do not prevent corruption, which is the major reason cited by proponents of campaign finance reform for enacting contribution caps. Limiting contributions “intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise `the most fundamental First Amendment activities,'” Roberts said, citing the Court’s landmark 1976 campaign finance ruling, Buckley v. Valeo.

Concurring, Justice Clarence Thomas said he would have gone even further and struck down all contribution limits.

Roberts wrote that while overall campaign contribution limits don’t curb corruption, they “seriously restrict participation in the democratic process.” Critics counter removing all spending limits will seriously restrict the participation of middle- and lower-class Americans, who cannot hope to wield equal influence in the electoral process when competing against millionaires and billionaires.

Justices Roberts and Thomas were joined in the majority by Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy. Dissenting were Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

In his scathing dissent, Breyer wrote that the latest ruling “eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws.” The majority opinion, he wrote:

…misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake. It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign. 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.

Under the ruling, the amount donors may give to individual candidates remains unchanged. Currently, individuals may not donate more than $48,600 to candidates for president or Congress, nor more than $123,200 to parties, candidates and political action committees (PACs). Contributions to individual candidates will stay capped at $2,600.

But individuals are now free to donate the maximum per candidate to as many candidates, campaigns or PACs as they please. Critics claim this will have a devastating effect on democracy and accelerate the rise of an American oligarchy. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a longtime opponent of money in politics, called the ruling “absurd.”

“What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” Sanders said in a statement. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”

“Freedom of speech, in my view, does not mean the freedom to buy the United States government,” added Sanders.

Sanders said the ruling closely resembles the “disastrous” 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, in which the justices affirmed that corporations are people with the constitutional right to spend as much money as they please to influence the outcome of US elections.

The case at hand was brought before the court by Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon, the Republican Party and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McCutcheon, a wealthy conservative businessman from Alabama, wanted to donate more than limits allowed, arguing that those limits were violating his free speech rights. In agreeing with McCutcheon, the Supreme Court is tacitly endorsing the notion that while all Americans may be created equal, those with the most money should effectively have the most say in deciding the outcome of elections.

Mansur Gidfar, communications director at the anti-corruption group Represent.Us, called McCutcheon “one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time.” Writing in the Huffington Post, Gidfar notes that in the last election cycle, only 0.08 percent of the population made more than $2,500 in political contributions.

“This isn’t terribly surprising once you consider that the absolute maximum donation of $5,200 per candidate ($2,600 in primary and general elections) per election cycle is more than the average American family makes in an entire month,” wrote Gidfar.

“But if you’re part of that 0.08 percent of the population that has money to burn on political giving, why stop at one candidate?” he asks. “Why not dole out $5,000 bucks to a hundred different candidates just to be safe? That’s where McCutcheon v. FEC comes in.”

Indeed, just as Citizens United opened the floodgates to a massive inflow of corporate and special interest spending on elections, McCutcheon is expected to have the same decidedly un-democratic effect on spending by wealthy individuals. That means that plutocrats such as the Koch brothers, who spent a total of more than $400 million influencing the 2012 elections, could open their practically bottomless wallets even wider to fund regressive candidates who support their agenda. Or wealthy liberal donors could do the same to promote their interests.

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