It’s still 10 months from Election Day, but the amount of money raised to fund this year’s congressional races already numbers in the hundreds of millions. Early indicators suggest that 2014 could see the most expensive midterm elections in U.S. history. Candidates have officially collected $446 million through their campaign committees, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. Most worrisome for many concerned about the avalanche of money in the political system is the cash originating from a few wealthy donors and corporations, then funneled through outside groups like trade associations, nonprofits affiliated with political causes, and commitees, or “super PACs,” closely allied with candidates. These so-called independent expenditures have already topped $25.5 million for 2014 and the 2013 special elections. That figure outpaces the $21.2 million spent at this point in the 2012 cycle and dwarfs the $8.5 million spent by this time in 2010. Much more is expected to flow in as candidates vie in competitive primaries and the general election season gets into full swing.
Yesterday’s fascinating New York Times deep dive into partisan money networks, state legislative elections, and the resulting policy outcomes really underlines the sometimes-complex relationship between campaign finance regulations and effective disclosure: “Not unlike a political version of Cayman Islands banks, the networks allow political strategists to sidestep regulations and obscure the source of funds. Campaign contributions that would be banned or restricted in one state can be sent to a state where the rules allow money to flow more freely, often scrubbed of the identity of the original donor. Some groups work behind the scenes to orchestrate ‘money bombs’ of smaller contributions from hundreds of different donors, allowing the groups to provide candidates with large doses of cash — fingerprint-free — even in states with low contribution limits.” Under current constitutional doctrine — and, really, this has been true since the 1970s, well before Citizens United and other recent court cases — regulations are generally incapable of preventing big money from ending up wherever it wants to go. What regulations can do is disrupt the way money is raised by candidates and parties, forcing political actors to innovate to gain access to funds.
America enters the election year 2014 with considerable uncertainty about two major constitutional issues: what will the rules be for financing the federal campaign, and what is the outlook for minority and poor voters at the ballot box? Two controversial Supreme Court decisions will have a continuing impact: the ruling four years ago in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and the decision last June in Shelby County v. Holder. It is not too much to say that the money side of national politics has been turned upside down by the Citizens United decision – a ruling that, after a century of restrictions on political financing by corporations and labor unions, turned them loose to spend as much as they liked as long as they did so independently from candidates running for Congress and the Presidency.
Christmas comes early for campaign watchdogs—or late, depending on your perspective. Thanks to a lag in IRS reporting rules, the tax returns of independent groups that spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2012 election are just now coming due. Considered together with a recent campaign-finance investigation in California, these filings hint at an orgy of self-dealing and “dark money” shenanigans unprecedented in American politics. The first presidential election since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision spawned what Bloomberg Businessweek called “a Cayman Islands-style web of nonprofit front groups and shell companies.” These not only shielded donors’ identities but also obscured the huge profits of political operatives who moved nimbly between the candidates, the super PACs, and the vendors that get their business. The so-called “independent expenditure” groups have been “transforming the business of running a political campaign and changing the pecking order of the most coveted jobs,” Businessweek noted. “With a super-PAC, the opportunity to make money is soaring while the job is getting easier to do.” Is it any wonder then that many of the biggest players from past elections jumped to the other side of the game in 2012? Or that they imported two money-making techniques perfected in campaign work: shell corporations that put fees and commissions beyond the reach of federal disclosure rules, and “integrated businesses,” set up by staff and advisers to do nuts-and-bolts electioneering?
Advocates for more transparency in the political system were dealt another blow this week as the Securities and Exchange Commission dropped a potential rule on the disclosure of corporate campaign contributions from its 2014 agenda. The regulatory agency, which is mandated to protect investors, is required by law to submit its agenda for the next year to the Office of Management and Budget. A conspicuous absence this time was consideration of a rule that would require publicly traded companies to disclose the specifics of their political spending to shareholders — an item that was included in the SEC’s 2013 agenda but was never acted upon. Individuals, interest groups, and corporations can write to the SEC to show they are in favor or opposed to proposed regulations. This particular provision garnered more than 600,000 public comments, more than any other rule in the SEC’s history, mostly written in favor of more disclosure. That fact alone makes the SEC’s decision all the more disappointing to those agitating for reform.
A new administration proposal to limit the political activity of tax-exempt groups could fall short of forcing “dark money” out of campaigns, experts say. The new Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service proposals, which are expected to spark extensive debate, would bar so-called 501(c)(4) organizations from counting certain political activity as part of their social welfare work. But the IRS and Treasury are still going to accept recommendations on how much political activity a group can engage in while still receiving the prized 501(c)(4) status — and their decision is crucial to lawmakers and outside groups trying to ensure that big-time political contributors are public knowledge. But no matter how the decision comes down, campaign finance experts predict lawyers will eventually be able to find a way to help donors avoid public disclosure. “One thing we’ve learned is that very few fixes in this area of the law are permanent, and it requires a consistent regulatory response since lawyers can find their way around these rules,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. According to the current law, groups classified as 501(c)(4), which can accept unlimited amounts of donations, are to be exclusively engaged in promoting social welfare.
A political group that has gained notoriety for challenging campaign restrictions on corporations was fined $260,000 on Tuesday after a judge said it failed to disclose spending. The civil penalty levied against American Tradition Partnership, which is organized as a nonprofit corporation, demonstrated that new campaign freedoms extended to corporations don’t make them immune to state disclosure laws. District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said in his order that the group has shown “complete disregard” for the laws of Montana, its courts, and the tradition of free and open elections. The case involves attack ads mailed by the group in 2008 denouncing candidates. Officials say it did not report the spending as political activity to the state commissioner of political practices. The group, which was headquartered in Montana then Colorado and the Washington, D.C., area, has challenged state campaign finance laws and targeted moderate Republican legislators and Democrats with harsh campaign ads.
Voting Blogs: The McCutcheon Case: Hard money, soft money and now something in between? | More Soft Money Hard Law
Campaign finance regulation in the United States is complex, and judges have begun to complain about it. Most famously, Justice Kennedy spoke about the proliferating and abstruse rules in his opinion for the Court in Citizens United. At oral argument in a recent case, Justice Scalia suggested that no one really understood the law. The complexity of campaign finance rules is not just the handiwork of the regulators: the Court’s own doctrine can be hard to fathom. Once there was supposedly a clear distinction between “contributions” and “expenditures,” but this is no longer quite the case. And the line that once separated legal, clean “hard money” from illegal “soft money” may soon be harder to discern, after the Court has decided the pending case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The hard money/soft money distinction became the central focus of the campaign finance discussion in the 1990s. Hard money was understood to mean funds raised and spent within election law requirements—funds “subject to the [Federal Election Campaign] Act’s disclosure requirements and source and amount limitations.” McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, 540 U.S. 93, 122 (2003). Soft money was the unregulated funding, “beyond [federal law’s] reach” that parties and groups used to influence federal election campaigns. McConnell at 128. According to critics, soft money was imported into federal races through ingeniously devised loopholes, or simply disregard of the law. Hard money limits offered protections against corruption; soft money was effectively unlimited and overwhelmed those protections.
A Florida political activist is out of luck after the Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear his challenge to a state law that prohibited groups from donating small amounts of money without first forming a political action committee. The high court has struck down a number of campaign giving restrictions and regulations in recent years, but its decision not to hear the case from plaintiff Andrew Worley means that the 11th Circuit Court’s decision in the case will stand and the Florida restrictions will remain in place. “It is definitely a disappointment, but the fight is not over. There are other courts looking at these issues in similar cases and eventually the Supreme Court will have to take them up,” said Institute for Justice senior attorney Paul Sherman. Mr. Sherman, who was the lead attorney on the case, cited cases in Arizona and Mississippi, where the plaintiffs have won and the states have said they will appeal. He noted that the Supreme Court, which does not disclose typically why it is not hearing an individual case, may have decided not to hear Worley v. Florida Secretary of State while waiting for those other cases will play out.
Montana: GOP Congressional Candidate Using Campaign Money Scheme Pioneered by…Stephen Colbert | Mother Jones
Ryan Zinke, a Republican running for Congress in Montana, is using a novel scheme to bankroll his congressional campaign—one that originated with Stephen Colbert. In January 2012, Colbert summoned Daily Show host Jon Stewart and Trevor Potter, a campaign finance expert, to the Colbert Report studio for a surprise announcement: Colbert was handing control of his super-PAC—a political action committee that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political races—to Stewart. The two comedians signed a two-page document, then held hands and locked eyes while Potter bellowed the words, “Colbert super-PAC transfer, activate!” Colbert then announced that he was forming an exploratory committee to weigh a run for “President of the United States of South Carolina.” Stewart, meanwhile, renamed Colbert’s super-PAC the Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC, and promised Colbert he would run ads to support Colbert’s presidential bid. The point of Colbert and Stewart’s comedy bit was to demonstrate that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision had rendered campaign finance law remarkably flimsy—so weak that it was legal for a person to start a super-PAC, raise unlimited heaps of cash from big-money donors for that super-PAC, quit the super-PAC, and then run for federal office supported by that super-PAC. Here was an easy way to escape the $2,500 limit on what individuals may give to federal candidates.
A secretive nonprofit group with ties to the billionaire conservative businessmen Charles and David Koch admitted to improperly failing to disclose more than $15 million in contributions it funneled into state referendum battles in California, state officials there announced Thursday. The group, the Arizona-based Center to Protect Patient Rights, is one of the largest political nonprofits in the country, serving as a conduit for tens of millions of dollars in political spending, much of it raised by the Kochs and their political operation and spent by other nonprofits active in the 2010 and 2012 elections. The settlement, announced by Attorney General Kamala D. Harris of California and the Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforce California’s campaign finance laws, includes one of the largest penalties ever assessed on a political group for failing to disclose donations. The center and another Arizona group involved in the transactions, Americans for Responsible Leadership, will pay a $1 million fine, while two California groups must turn over $15 million in contributions they received.
It looks as though the “super PAC” era is coming to New York. A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled that a conservative group supporting Joseph J. Lhota, the Republican nominee for mayor of New York City, can immediately begin accepting contributions of any size because New York State’s limit on donations to independent political committees is probably unconstitutional. The ruling, 12 days before the mayoral election, is not likely to change the dynamics of the race, given the wide lead of the Democratic candidate, Bill de Blasio, and a presumed reluctance by many potential big donors to donate to an underdog candidate this late in the game. But an end to limits on contributions to independent political groups could have a much bigger impact next year, when voters will decide whether to re-elect Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and will determine which party controls the State Senate — a long-running battle in which independent spending could make a significant difference. “This could usher in an era where super PACs call the shots in campaigns all over the state, not just in the city,” said David Donnelly, the executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, which advocates public financing of elections.
So far the commentary on Judge Richard Posner’s expression of regret over his opinion in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board has featured the reaction of those who object to voter photo ID requirements and now feel vindicated. This is understandable, but if Posner just got it wrong, there is only so much left to say, and he might expect credit for his candor. But Judge Posner’s explanation of Crawford is unsatisfying, and it does not really get at the problem with the approach he took in that case. One difficulty with the explanation is that it is at odds with the larger point Posner wishes to make about the requirements of sound judging. This is his point: that judges don’t possess the information or knowledge to decide cases of a technical nature. About politics, he states, they can be positively “naïve,” as the Court was in Citizens United: they “enmesh themselves deeply in the electoral process without understanding it sufficiently well to be ale to gauge the consequences of their decisions.” Richard A. Posner, Reflections on Judging 84 (2013). It is in this context that he decides to “plead guilty” to having overlooked the partisan abuses of photo ID. Id. But he adds his doubts on the same grounds about recent campaign finance decisions and about political gerrymandering which, he states, is “a practice that in conjunction with the Court’s endorsement of promiscuous campaign donations seems to have poisoned our national politics.” Id.
Editorials: Citizens United, McCain-Feingold Fueled Congress’ Shutdown Politics | Paul Blumenthal/Huffington Post
Dysfunctional politics led a coalition of independent conservative groups and hardline Republican lawmakers to push for a showdown on Obamacare over a continuing resolution to fund the government and thus to shut down the government for more than two weeks. But what empowered a fracturing Republican Party to bring chaos on Washington? The short answer: a one-two punch rewriting of campaign finance law that drove legislators to heed their own parties’ extreme elements. Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has blamed the 2002 McCain-Feingold reform law, calling it “the worst thing that ever happened to Congress.” By taking unlimited “soft money” away from the political parties, but especially from the Republican Party, the law empowered the nascent insurgents at the Club for Growth. President Barack Obama said it was the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that “contributed to some of the problems we’re having in Washington right now.” Post-Citizens United, money from independent groups has poured into elections.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case many — including my GovBeat colleague Niraj — have dubbed the next Citizens United. McCutcheon challenges the government-set aggregate limits on how much an individual can contribute to federal candidates. It’s the latest salvo in a coordinated drive by conservative lawyers to undermine campaign finance reforms. And those conservative lawyers aren’t waiting for McCutcheon to be decided before they tee up their next assault — this time on rules against corporations contributing to candidates. Last week, Indiana attorney Jim Bopp Jr., on behalf of the Iowa Right to Life Committee, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review Iowa’s ban on political contributions by corporations. Bopp says Iowa’s rules, which allow labor unions to give but prohibit corporations from donating to candidates, violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee, along with the right to free speech.
Editorials: The Supreme Court needs to get smarter about politics | Trevor Potter/The Washington Post
At one point during the oral argument Tuesday in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that he didn’t understand the legislation in question. “This campaign finance law is so intricate that I can’t figure it out,” he said. “It might have been nice to have the, you know, the lower court tell me what the law is.” Scalia meant to be playful. But as the argument progressed, it became clear that the justices really don’t know enough about money in politics. They expressed skepticism about “wild hypotheticals that are not obviously plausible” — when in fact we’ve already seen those scenarios play out. They talked a lot about the FEC’s “earmarking” and “coordination” rules, but they didn’t seem to recognize that those rules are impossible to police and that a dysfunctional FEC isn’t doing much policing anyway. And the conservatives on the court seemed to fail to understand what leads to corruption or the appearance of corruption — with Justice Samuel Alito going so far as to suggest that giving a very large check to a political fundraising committee isn’t inherently a problem, because the committee could take the money and burn it. “Well, they’re not,” replied Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. “They are not going to burn it.”
The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed prepared to strike down a part of federal campaign finance law left intact by its decision in Citizens United in 2010: overall limits on direct contributions from individuals to candidates. The justices seemed to divide along familiar ideological lines, and they articulated starkly different understandings of the role of money and free speech in American politics. “By having these limits, you are promoting democratic participation,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “Then the little people will count some and you won’t have the super-affluent as the speakers that will control the elections.” Justice Antonin Scalia responded, sarcastically, that he assumed “a law that only prohibits the speech of 2 percent of the country is O.K.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who probably holds the crucial vote, indicated that he was inclined to strike down overall limits on contributions to several candidates, but perhaps not separate overall limits on contributions to several political committees.
The Justices yesterday pondered and puzzled over various hypotheticals about how large donations can flood into the political system. All advocates were highly able and performed well, but the discussion never came to a clear agreement about what the law would allow, or when its proper enforcement would require the Federal Election Commission to challenge underhanded activity. There was uncertainty about contribution limits and the various uses of the terms “transfers” and “contributions”; disagreement about how far the earmarking rules reached; distinctions blurred between “hard” and “soft” money; and differences over which schemes for evading the limits could be considered “realistic” predictions of political behavior. Justice Breyer offered one hypothetical and a view of the legal implications, then conceded he or his law clerk might have it wrong and would have to review the rules again. Justice Breyer also had views of how easily circumvention could be accomplished and how open to public view it was. It was “pretty easy,” he said, “to have not one person control … 4,000 PACs,” and “if you want to say, is this a reality? Turn on your television set or internet. Because we found instances, without naming names, where it certainly is a reality.” Transcript of Oral Argument at 8, McCutcheon v. FEC, No. 12-536 (Oct. 8, 2013).
National: Much Ado About McCutcheon: The Continuing Erosion of Campaign Contribution Limits | Pacific Standard
Shaun McCutcheon wants to make political donations to federal candidates. Allow me to clarify; McCutcheon wants to make a lot of political donations to federal candidates. The Republican National Committee, among others, wants him to be able to do so. So what’s the problem? Currently, McCutcheon can give $2,600 per election directly to a federal candidate, a total of $48,600 per election to all federal candidates, and $74,600 per election to federal political party committees and political action committees, or PACs, that give money to federal candidates. Put another away, McCutcheon (and other individuals) are subject to a $123,200 per election aggregate contribution limit with respect to candidates, political parties, and PACs. McCutcheon, an electrical engineer living in Alabama, would like to change that. The result is the latest and greatest campaign finance question to hit the high court since Citizens United. In the early 1970s, in the wake of the Watergate scandals that lead to the resignation of President Nixon, Congress implemented the nation’s first comprehensive campaign finance law. The law limited how much could be given to and spent by candidates, how much could be spent by independent groups and organizations, required that certain donations and expenditures be disclosed to the public, and created a system of public campaign financing for presidential candidates. The primary reason that McCutcheon’s argument may likely carry the day is that five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court are, to varying degrees, hostile to campaign finance legislation.
Editorials: How Close Will the Supreme Court Get to Ending Campaign-Finance Laws? | Garrett Epps/The Atlantic
“Chutzpah,” wrote the late Leo Rosten, “is that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself upon the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” Here’s another example: Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court, three years ago, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, this Court tore a gaping hole in the system of campaign-finance regulation designed by Congress over 30 years. The result has been disastrous: a flood of dark money that now dominates elections, drowning out ordinary citizens and even the candidates and parties themselves. The solution to this problem is simple: This Court should tear another gaping hole in what’s left of the system so that the rich can give more—maybe much more—directly to the candidates and parties. What could possibly go wrong? That, in essence, was the message delivered to the Court Tuesday by lawyers for Alabama businessman Sean McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee. His attorney argued that because Citizens United unleashed “independent expenditures” while allowing the government to limit the amount of money contributed directly to campaigns, rich people are giving to PACs rather than to candidates or party committees. Why not let us wet our beaks too?
Editorials: Poor Little Rich Guys: Supreme Court case to raise limits on campaign contributions | Dahlia Lithwick/Slate
The Supreme Court can hardly be faulted for having docketed McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission on the eighth day of a partial government shutdown that has all but crippled the national capital and separated hundreds of thousands of Americans from their jobs and paychecks. It’s unfair to blame the justices for the fact that Tuesday’s constitutional free-speech challenge comes to protect only the 1,219 wealthiest campaign donors, who in the 2012 election cycle reached or almost reached the limit on what they could contribute to federal candidates, parties, and political action committees in any two-year election cycle. This isn’t the 1 percent. It’s who the 1 percent dreams of becoming someday. The optics of having this particular fight this particular week are not terrific, an accident of scheduling that has Scrooge McDuck, Montgomery Burns, and Richie Rich ambling around the Supreme Court plaza on Tuesday, bemoaning the diminution of their voices in the national political conversation.
An Alabama businessman whose challenge to campaign contribution limits goes before the Supreme Court on Tuesday has already spent well beyond the current limit through an unrestricted super PAC, public records show. Shaun McCutcheon, a conservative activist who runs an Alabama electrical engineering firm, argues in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that the $123,200 limit on how much he may give to candidates, political action committees and parties per election cycle stifles his free speech and does nothing to curb corruption. But in the 2012 elections, McCutcheon spent close to three times that limit — about $300,000 — supporting his favorite candidates through his personal PAC. McCutcheon set up the Conservative Action Fund PAC in 2010 as “a good way to do political advertising” and “a way to raise money from other donors,” he said. McCutcheon’s ability to spend hundreds of thousands beyond the aggregate contribution limit, even under the current rules, illustrates how wide-open the campaign finance system has already become. The question now is whether the high court will deregulate elections even further.
Tuesday’s oral argument in McCutcheon v. FEC, the latest high-profile campaign finance case, will likely generate familiar storylines about a fiercely ideological Supreme Court, where one justice drives the outcome of a close 5-4 decision. Public perception of the Supreme Court is that there are four conservatives, four liberals and Justice Anthony Kennedy in the middle — as the “swing” vote. But that’s wrong — at least where voting rights and campaign finance cases are concerned. Though Kennedy’s vote dictates some outcomes when the court is split 5-4 along ideological lines, another justice has been the driving force behind current election law jurisprudence. In this matter, it is truly Chief Justice John Roberts’s court. Since Roberts became chief justice in 2005, the court has issued 23 written opinions involving voting rights, redistricting or campaign finance. Roberts is the only justice who has been in the majority every time. In addition, he has written twice as many majority opinions in this field as any other justice — six, as compared to Kennedy’s three. Roberts has now written more than 25 percent of the election law decisions handed down since he joined the court.
If the Supreme Court moves to strike down certain campaign finance limits this term, as many expect the Roberts Court will do, could the conservative majority also pave the way for dismantling a whole host of anti-bribery and campaign finance laws across the country? This week, when the court convenes for its new term, justices will hear oral arguments for McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that challenges the aggregate contribution limits from individuals to traditional political committees. Conservative legal strategists, including one of the groups that successfully propelled the original Citizens United decision, would like to use the McCutcheon case to go beyond the issue at hand. Just as Citizens United morphed from a case about restrictions on corporate-funded campaign movies into a decision that removed limits on all corporate and union spending on campaign expenditures, right-wing attorneys are hoping to harness McCutcheon to redefine how the government regulates multiple forms of corruption. If the conservative legal groups are successful, the ramifications could be widespread.
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.
The U.S. Supreme Court will this week step into the politically charged debate over campaign finance for the first time since its controversial ruling three years ago paved the way for corporations and unions to spend more on political candidates and causes. The case has the potential to weaken a key element of the federal campaign finance regulations remaining after the 2010 ruling, and it could pave the way for challenges to the restrictions on contributions that remain. Supporters say those laws are key to preventing wealthy donors from exerting an undue and potentially corrupting influence on the political process, while opponents say the laws choke free speech. In the 2010 case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the high court, split 5-4, lifted limits on independent expenditures, not coordinated with individual politicians or parties, by corporations and unions during federal election campaigns. This time, in a case to be argued on Tuesday, the nine justices will consider a challenge by Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee to the overall limit on campaign contributions that donors can make to individual candidates and committees over a two-year federal election cycle.
National: Supreme Court case could give wealthy donors more latitude in elections | The Washington Post
The very wealthy could play a much greater role in funding federal candidates and political parties if the Supreme Court rules that a key campaign finance restriction adopted after Watergate is unconstitutional. Under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court already has junked a number of election spending limits as improper restrictions on political expression — perhaps most dramatically with its 2010 Citizens United decision, which wiped out the ban on corporate election spending. A bold and broad decision by the court in one of its first cases of the new term, Shaun McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which the justices are to hear Tuesday, could overturn decades of precedent about the remaining power the government has to limit contributions to candidates and parties.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a campaign finance case that could be even bigger than the last one, the infamous Citizens United case of 2010. The new case, McCutcheon vs. FEC, challenges the aggregate spending rules that limit any one campaign contributor to $123,000 in total spending to political candidates and election committees during any two-year federal election cycle. The aggregate limit long has been a check on the flow of cold hard cash into the electoral system. As a three-judge panel of federal district court in Washington, D.C., observed last year, the per-candidate contribution limits in federal law — including $2,500 per election to any given candidate, $30,800 per year to each political party — would allow an individual to spread up to $3.5 million around. That’s a lot of bunce. The $123,000 ceiling effectively limits that donor to backing no more than 18 individual candidates in any cycle, the D.C. court noted.
Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon says he doesn’t want to give gobs of money to a single politician. Instead, he hopes to spread smaller contributions to as many candidates as possible. If he has his way in a case headed to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, however, a single donor could contribute more than $3 million to a political party, its state and federal chapters and all of its federal candidates to shape next year’s midterm elections for Congress, campaign-finance watchdogs warn. His case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, is the latest round in the bitter national battle over the role of money in American politics and the biggest challenge to campaign-finance rules since the court’s bombshell 2010 Citizens United decision ended restrictions on independent political spending by corporations and unions. The new legal fight targets a cornerstone of election rules: the ability of the government to regulate the amount of money individuals can give to presidential and congressional candidates and political parties.
Say you owned a business, and found out one of your employees was taking money out of the cash register and spending it on questionable ventures without telling you. You’d fire him, right? It’s a pretty clear-cut case of right and wrong. Now imagine that you aren’t allowed to know whether that employee is taking money out of your profits, or where the money is going. Sound unfair – and like a bad way to run a business? Sadly, that’s the case for shareholders – owners of the largest corporations in America – who’d like to know how their profits are being spent on political causes. Now Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are holding a briefing to explain why shareholders’ need this information in their hands.