An opinion could come as early as this coming week in the Supreme Court case being called “the next Citizens United,” and groups concerned about the influence of money in American politics are bracing themselves for the result. Public Citizen has planned more than 100 events across the country in anticipation of a McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling that further dismantles our campaign finance laws and strikes down a key federal campaign contribution limit. I, too, am troubled by the prospect of an awful decision that would clear the way for more corruption. But I find some solace in the thought that such a ruling could have a surprising positive side effect: reducing gridlock in Washington. At issue in the McCutcheon case is the constitutionality of caps on an individual’s total donations to federal candidates, parties and certain political committees in a two-year election cycle. Alabama Republican Shaun McCutcheon wanted to give $1,776 to each of 28 candidates in the 2012 cycle, but that would have exceeded the $48,600 aggregate limit on direct contributions to candidates. He and the Republican National Committee are challenging that limit, along with the $123,200 cap on total donations.
If previous campaign finance cases in the Roberts-Alito era are any indication, the court will rule in McCutcheon’s favor and strike down the federal aggregate limits. The court used to uphold most campaign finance laws on the grounds that they prevented corruption or the appearance of corruption. Since Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito joined, however, the court has struck down or weakened every campaign finance limit it has considered, applying narrow definitions of corruption and upending old understandings about the compelling need to prevent undue political influence by the wealthy. The most important of these opinions, of course, was in Citizens United v. FEC , holding that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited sums in campaigns.