As a businessman from Birmingham, Ala., I could never imagine winding up where I am today. Yet here I am, the lead plaintiff in a case going before the U.S. Supreme Court this week — McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. I expected to be focused more than full time on growing the electrical engineering firm I started from scratch 17 years ago. But when the federal government threatens your most fundamental constitutional rights — and your freedom of speech — it’s time to take a stand and get into politics. Here’s what happened: As an activist, I naturally want to donate to candidates who share my views. I was doing just that during the 2010 election cycle when an Alabama GOP committee warned I might be nearing my contribution limit. Contribution limit? That was news to me. It turns out that decades ago, Congress put a cap on two kinds of campaign giving: how much you can donate to individual candidates and committees and how much you can give in total when you add all your donations to various candidates and committees, the so-called aggregate limit. Since then, aggregate limits have become too complex and time consuming to understand, both in terms of what they are and what they really do — help incumbents self-regulate and get perpetually reelected.
I understand the courts have decided that donating a maximum amount to each candidate or committee won’t cause political corruption. But what makes no sense to me, and what my case is solely about, are the aggregate limits. Somehow, I can give the individual limit, now $2,600, to 17 candidates without corrupting the system. But as soon as I give that same amount to an 18th candidate, our democracy is suddenly at risk. Only politicians in Washington could come up with something so absurd. Think about it: If a $2,600 contribution won’t corrupt 17 candidates, then the same size contribution wouldn’t corrupt 18 … or 28 … or 38.
In fact, we will fight political corruption by having the freedom to spend on more candidates whom we support with more competition in the process. Good candidates who aren’t rich can raise more money and challenge entrenched insiders. Right now, the aggregate limits add to the advantages that incumbents already have in public office. With more time and donors, they amass huge war chests because special interests place their bets on the incumbent waltzing to victory. That’s a very safe bet, by the way, since roughly 90 percent of incumbents win reelection time and again. It helps those odds that incumbents typically have about half their staff working on their reelection, and that they get a ton of free media throughout their time in office.
So how can they ensure elections remain uncompetitive? How about limiting the amount of money that challengers can get from potential supporters? Aggregate limits do exactly that because politically active donors donate to incumbents first, long before they even have challengers in the cycle, and it’s those marginal dollars that aren’t there when challengers need funds. And while candidates and parties are accountable to voters and are going to be there even after elections, forcing campaign spending away from them and into super PACs creates less accountability.