Thank you, Supreme Court. Before your decision Wednesday in McCutcheon vs. FEC, Americans were confined to giving a measly total of $48,600 in campaign contributions to federal candidates (enough for about nine candidates) and a total of $74,600 to political action committees. That means individuals were subject to aggregate contributions limits totaling a mere $123,200. Of course, individuals could, and still can, give unlimited sums to independent groups, such as so-called super PACs and other nonprofit corporations. Much of this giving remains undisclosed. For instance, super PACs such as Restore Our Future, American Crossroads, Priorities USA Action and others spent almost $830 million in the 2012 election. Talk about constraints on one’s ability to participate in our electoral processes. And how many people were handcuffed by these limits? Well, fewer than 600 donors, or 0.0000019% of Americans, gave the maximum amount under those oh-so-restrictive limits, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And 0.1% of 310 million Americans give $2,500 or more in political campaigns. Well, good news for you big donors: no more pesky aggregate contribution limits. Sure, you are still limited to giving only $5,200 per federal candidate ($2,600 for the primary and $2,600 for the general) and $5,000 annually per PAC. But now you can directly support as many candidates as you want.
As Justice Antonin Scalia noted in the October hearing in this case: “I don’t think $3.5 million is a heck of a lot of money.” That’s the total a single donor could give if he or she donated the maximum allowed in every congressional race in the nation.
But is this really what was envisioned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, when Congress sought to stem the flow of money in politics? Hardly. Our current campaign finance framework stands as a sad relic of the comprehensive system passed in the early 1970s, when Congress enacted the Federal Election Campaign Act, the nation’s first wide-ranging set of campaign finance restrictions. The law limited the amount that could be given to and spent by candidates and political committees. It also provided for disclosure of those sums. Disclosure may be the only way we can regulate the political money trail in the near future.