Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon told Yellowhammer in September of last year that he wanted to “change the world.” With the United States Supreme Court’s ruling today in his case, McCutcheon v. FEC, it’s safe to say he has done exactly that, especially when it comes to the world of politics.
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Political donors are currently subject to limits on the amount of money they can contribute to candidates. $2,600 is the most a donor can give to any one candidate. That’s called the “base limit.” This number is the amount of money the Federal Election Commission believes protects donors’ First Amendment right to engage in the political process, while remaining below the threshold at which a donor could “buy” too much influence with a candidate or elected official.
But on top of the base limit, there is also a cap on the total sum of money a donor can donate to federal campaigns in general. It’s called the “aggregate limit,” and it’s set at $123,200.
That is, until today.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with McCutcheon and ruled that the aggregate limit on federal campaign contributions is unconstitutional.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion.
“The government has a strong interest… in combatting corruption and its appearance,” Roberts wrote. “We have, however, held that this interest must be limited to a specific kind of corruption — quid pro quo corruption — in order to ensure that the government’s efforts do not have the effect of restricting the First Amendment right of citizens to choose who shall govern them.”
In other words, the high court ruled that limiting the total amount of money American citizens can give to a wide range of candidates is a violation of their First Amendment Rights. The individual limit of $2,600, however, stays in place.
“While I understand some base limits on the dollar amount of single contributions, limits to the overall number of candidates, parties and committees are nothing more than unnecessary limits to First Amendment freedom,” McCutcheon said in reaction to the ruling. “The Supreme Court has reaffirmed the unconstitutionality of aggregate limits.”
McCutcheon’s allies have argued that lifting the aggregate limit would also help quell the growing power of Super PACs, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money as long as they don’t “coordinate” with a specific campaign.
The age of Super PACs was ushered in by another controversial Supreme Court decision, Citizens United.
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Critics of today’s ruling say it will allow a small number of big donors to have an outsized impact on federal elections. NYU’s Brennen Center for Justice submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the U.S. Supreme Court last July with regard to the McCutcheon case.
“Without aggregate limits,” the brief reads, a “system of effectively unlimited contributions would permit a tiny class of donors to wield vastly disproportionate influence over our elected representatives, encouraging the control of government by faction that has been feared and resisted since the founding of our government… Without aggregate contribution limits in place, contributions to political committees and candidates would mirror the pattern of donations to super PACs. Overwhelmingly large contributions to candidates and parties from a handful of sources—solicited directly by federal candidates and officeholders—would thus become the norm.”
Regardless of one’s position on the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s impossible to deny its impact on the political process. Several political insiders Yellowhammer talked to right after the decision said the importance of the ruling cannot be overstated.
“There are not a lot of people who could have pulled off what Shaun has done here,” said Chris Brown, an Alabama-based Republican political consultant. “It’s a big win for freedom and being able to get involved in the political process. The fact that Shaun is an Alabama guy makes this victory even sweeter.”
Follow Cliff on Twitter @Cliff_Sims
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