Shaun McCutcheon never thought the case that bears his name would make it this far. But Tuesday, the 46-year-old electrical engineer, conservative activist and donor will watch the Supreme Court hear the case that could erase Watergate-era caps on campaign donations. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the lawsuit challenging the total amount of money a single donor can give to all federal candidates could have far-reaching implications for the way campaigns and political parties are financed. The court’s 2010 Citizens United decision has entered the vernacular as shorthand for the explosion of money in politics. That case, along with another that allowed the creation of super PACs, led to donors writing multimillion-dollar checks. Because of the way modern campaigns are financed — by candidates partnering with federal, state and local parties — McCutcheon’s lawsuit could have the consequence of allowing politicians to ask a single donor for $1 million a pop, or more. To McCutcheon, the lawsuit is over a fundamental matter of freedom. He argues the government has no right to set overall caps on donations in the first place. To campaign-finance reformers and government watchdogs, it’s a potential nightmare — the latest in a long series of Supreme Court cases that have allowed Big Money to dominate politics.
“It probably will put more money into politics,” McCutcheon said in a recent interview. That’s part of the invisible hand of the free market, he says — and perhaps an influx of money into the political process could be a potential stimulus for the economy. “What’s wrong with more jobs, more commerce, more competition?”
Though the case deals only with the total donation cap, the court could use the opportunity to undercut — or toss — the laws governing contribution limits to candidates. Or, more likely, it could crack open the door for other challenges that would further roll back the campaign-finance system that has been in place since the early 1970s.
“That could potentially throw a lot of things into question” said Larry Norton, an election-law expert with the law firm Venable and a former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission.
Some are asking the court to do just that. In an unusual move, the Supreme Court granted attorneys for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) time to argue before the court that all federal contribution limits should be lifted. “Contribution limits restrict the rights of speech and association of both the contributor and the recipient of the contribution,” McConnell argued in brief filed last spring.