Farewell, Campaign Finance Restrictions, and Hello, Mega-Donors

Apr 4, 2014Jeffrey Raines

Yesterday's decision on McCutcheon v. FEC will radically change the power of individual donors, the amount of money in politics, and how we look at campaign finance reform.

While he made a few conciliatory gestures to the left-leaning justices in the first page of his decision, the core of Chief Justice John Roberts's decision on McCutcheon v. FEC was simple and explicit: while Congress can regulate money in politics, it "may not, however, regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount ofmoney in politics." After the decision was announced in his favor, the first thing Shaun McCutcheon probably did was get out his checkbook. Meanwhile RNC Chair Reince Preibus, giddy with excitement, probably will be framing the first page of the decision on his office wall. One surprising person who was upset by the decision was Justice Clarence Thomas, who wanted to go farther than the Court and completely destroy all contribution limits.

McCutcheon is relatively simple in terms of its effect on money in politics. It eliminates an individual’s aggregate contribution limit. Or in layman’s terms, no one can stop you from investing millions into campaigns so long as you don’t go over individual limits of $5,200/cycle for each candidate or $10,000/cycle for each PAC.

So what’s still in place? We can look at the major restrictions on campaign finance of the past 40-some years. Much of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 has been overturned or undermined, or proven to be incomplete or ineffective. The 1974 amendments to that act were overturned as well, in Buckley v. Valeo. And the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, or McCain-Feingold, has mostly been overturned as well. The exceptions are the laughably inadequate disclosure requirements, the rule that foreign nationals can't make political contributions, and the increased contribution limits, which were indexed to inflation.

And what's left? Not much. McCutcheon v. FEC does not simply undo the precedent set over forty years ago in Buckley v. Valeo. It will drastically increase the power of the wealthiest 1% of Americans because there is one less restriction on how much they can affect a campaign cycle.

There is some speculation that McCutcheon will actually improve things, because it will give more power and accountability back to the people and away from SuperPACs. Let’s debunk that terrible justification right now: The McCutcheon decision will only increase the amount of money in politics, without affecting the bottom lines of PACs, SuperPACs, or “CareyPACs” hardly at all. If you are someone like McCutcheon, and can afford to contribute more than $123,200 every election cycle, it’s only going to increase the amount of money you can hand out to the red-tied politicians waiting outside your office like a Great Depression-era bread line.

Senator Chuck Schumer of NY said in a statement yesterday “by eliminating aggregate contribution limits, nothing can stop a single millionaire from lining the pockets of an entire state’s congressional delegation.” In 72% of the country (36 states), an individual like McCutcheon could already do just that, because those states have small enough delegations. Now it’s possible in the entire country. Instead of contributing the maximum to as many as 9 candidates (the aggregate limit to candidates was $48,600), anyone with money burning a hole in their pocket could contribute the maximum to each of the 55 California Democrats or Republicans running for the House and Senate. That’s a potential contribution of $286,000 to the California delegation. And if McCutcheon (who is a conservative) wanted to contribute the max to every Republican running for the House and Senate in 2014, it would cost him a mere $2,433,600. That might not seem like a lot in comparison to the $150 million Sheldon Adelson gave last cycle, but it’s an extra $2.38 million to candidates that could have instead bought groceries for a family of four for over 150 years. That’s rent in New York City for 65 years. How many Americans can choose giant campaign contributions over that?

My prediction for 2014 was already record-high expenditures and expansive war chests simply because that’s the trend we’re facing. Now it’s going to skyrocket. Expect every major news outlet to start profiling the “mega donors” once August and September rolls around. You’ll see men like McCutcheon and Sheldon Adelson’s profiles on sites that track big money's influence on politics to blow up with contribution records – at least for the contributions that are disclosed.

For further reference on campaign finance reform, see the oral arguments from McCutcheon, and analysis from the Sunlight Foundation on the case and how it will benefit thetop 1,000 donors, as well as The New Yorker's John Cassidy's take.

Jeff Raines is the Chair of the Student Board of Advisors for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

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