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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Business and Regulation

Will the Supreme Court Abolish Common Sense Limits on Campaign Spending?


Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for a case that could be worse for the American public than Citizens United v. FEC, and unleash countless millions of special interest dollars into political campaigns. In this case ­– McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee v. FEC – Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, has teamed up with the Republican National Committee (RNC) to try to eliminate the aggregate spending limits for federal elections that are in place.

Under current federal law, there are base limits on spending (the amounts that you can give to a particular candidate or committee) and aggregate limits on spending (the amounts that you can contribute across all political candidates and committees). In a carefully orchestrated legal strategy, building off cases like Citizens United and v. FEC, McCutcheon and the RNC are challenging the aggregate limits, but not the base limits, for campaign contributions. In this way, McCutcheon and the RNC are seeking to chip away at federal protections designed to reduce corruption in politics.

But don’t be fooled; McCutcheon and the RNC are trying to chip off a pretty huge chunk.

McCutcheon’s view challenge would blow the lid off the amount of money the super rich could contribute to campaigns and influence politics compared to the average American. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median American family makes $52,762 a year. What would be a reasonable limit that any individual, in accordance with a constitution that begins “We the people,” could contribute to campaigns to ensure that elected officials represent all people and not only a select few? $10,000? $20,000? $52,762?

The current aggregate limits are set at $123,200, more than twice what an average American family makes in a year. And these are the limits that McCutcheon and the RNC are challenging. Under their view, any individual could contribute more than fifty times what an average American family makes in a year at over $3.63 million.

Here is the problem for McCutcheon and the RNC: their view doesn’t hold water with public opinion or Supreme Court precedent. More than two thirds of Americans, spanning both political parties, support contribution limits. And in Buckley v. Valeo (1974) the Supreme Court flatly decided that aggregate contribution limits are constitutional and serve the legitimate purposes of “preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption” and “preventing circumvention of contribution limits imposed to further anti-corruption interests.”

But here is the problem for the American people: the same justices that struck down the distinction between the political speech of people and corporations in Citizens United are now going to be deciding McCutcheon.

McCutcheon and the RNC are arguing that the world is different from the one in which aggregate limits were first enacted, and from when the Supreme Court affirmed their constitutionality in 1974. But nothing could be further from the truth. The American people’s confidence in Congress is at historic lows, while the amount of money pumped into campaigns is at historic highs.  McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee v. FEC threatens to inject significantly greater amounts of money into campaigns from an elite few, making a contribution-hungry Congress even more beholden to special interests.

So what can you do to ensure that your voice isn’t further drowned by money in politics? Speak. Campaign finance issues are live around the country, and the voices of many are the only way to balance the money of few.



Patrick Kibbe is a joint degree candidate in public policy and law at the Harvard Kennedy School and at Harvard Law School. This piece is cross-posted at Daily Kos, where it originally appeared.



Photo source here.