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article imageU.S. Supreme Court case expands political clout of wealthy elite

By Rabeh Soofi     Apr 3, 2014 in Politics
On April 2, 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court overruled a 40-year-old decision upholding the legality of limits to the overall amount a single person can donate to candidates, political parties, and committees.
In a heavily controversial ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court’s new decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Committee has lifted the aggregate limits of campaign contributions, allowing individuals to contribute campaign monies to an unlimited amount of campaigns, parties, and committees. The decision is the latest in a long list of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that have expanded the growth and influence of large corporate and wealthy interests while eroding the rights of middle class Americans.
The McCutcheon case challenged the legality of Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), which aimed to curb campaign donations by setting limits on both individual spending (i.e., per candidate) and in the aggregate (regardless of the number of candidates supported) to a total of $123,200 per 2-year election cycle. FECA established “base limits” for the amounts that could be contributed by single person per candidate of $5,200 to an individual candidate per election, $32,400 to a national party committee, $10,000 to a state/local party committee, and $5,000 to a political action committee (PAC). BCRA, on the other hand, set aggregate limits capping how much an individual donor could contribute in total, regardless of how many candidates were supported, to $48,000 to federal candidates and $74,600 to other political committees.
The case was brought by Shaun McCutcheon, the owner of an Alabama electrical engineering company supported by the Republican National Committee. McCutcheon argued that in the 2011-2012 election cycle, he contributed money to 16 different federal candidates, and that the aggregate limits of FECA/BCRA prevented him from contributing to 12 additional candidates and political action committees. He argued that his free speech and First Amendment rights were violated by the FECA/BCRA, and that he had a right to donate to as many candidates as he wanted, as long as no individual candidate received more than $5,200 per election ($2,600 for primary and $2,600 for the general election).
Ultimately, the Court sided with McCutcheon, asserting that the right to donate money was protected by the First Amendment, and that aggregate caps on campaign contributions stifled the individual’s right to free expression. The Court determined that campaign finance laws setting aggregate donation limits had nothing to do with “preventing corruption,” and “quid pro quo” exchanges (i.e. bribery) were a more likely source of corruption. Under the court's ruling, donors will be limited to $5,200 per candidate, but can donate to unlimited campaigns and candidates. The decision also affects contribution caps in at least a dozen states.
The decision, decided by a 5-4 majority, was sharply criticized by the dissenting Supreme Court Justices. “It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign,” Justice Breyer wrote in an opinion joined by the other three liberal-leaning justices. “Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election, today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.” As readers may already know, the 2010 Citizens United decision dramatically loosened campaign finance laws by deciding that political contributions constituted “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. It opened the floodgates to massive political spending by corporations and wealth donors seeking to support candidates who would support their causes. As of July, 2013, Super Pacs reported receipts of $828 million for the 2012 election cycle, an exponential increase from the $89 million that was spent in the 2010 election cycle.
The reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling were controversial and widely divergent. The Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, lauded the ruling, asserting that “freedom of speech was being upheld.” “You all have the freedom to write what you want to write,” Boehner said. “Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”
The McCutcheon decision seems to have practical effect of lifting limits for unlimited political contributes by only 1,715 individuals who reached the caps in place for the 2012 election cycle, according to statistics by OpenSecrets.com, which tracks political contributions. Out of 235 million adult Americans, only 1,715 gave more than the maximum of $70,800 in the 2012 election cycle (653 individuals donating more than $51 million to Democrat party committees and 1062 individuals donating more than $88 million to Republican party committees for a total of). This roughly averages $82,026 of contributions per individual. For comparison purposes, approximately .1% of Americans donate more than $200 in political campaign contributions – a scant number by any measure. Even more remarkable is that only .02% of adult Americans contributed more than $2,600 in the 2012 election cycle, and only 116 individuals donated more than $95,000. According to the evidentiary materials evaluated by the Supreme Court, the top 50 donors in the 1996 election contributed amounts ranging from $530,000 to $3,287,175. In 2000, that swelled to ranges between $955,695 - $5,949,000. Under the Court’s new ruling, an individual can contribute up to $3.5 million. “I don’t think $3.5 million is a heck of a lot of money,” said Justice Antonin Scalia during the October hearing for the McCutcheon case.
Some politicians have conceded that the influx of huge sums of campaign donations by wealthy donors has drastically skewed political influence by ordinary Americans. “We have gone from basically a small donor system . . . where the average person believed they had a stake, believed they had a voice, to one of extremely large amounts of money, where you are not a player unless you are in the $100,000 or $200,000 range,” said Senator Fred Thompson in congressional hearings held in 2001.
The Court’s dissent also noted significant amount of evidence correlating power and influence over political matters to large campaign finance contributions. “Large donors of both hard and soft money receive special treatment. No matter how busy a politician may be during the day, he or she will always make time to see donors who gave large amounts of money,” said Wyoming Senator and Harvard graduate Alan Simpson in 2002 Affidavit. “The access and influence accorded large donors] is inherently, endemically, and hopelessly corrupting. You can’t swim in the ocean without getting wet; you can’t be part of this system without getting dirty,” said former New Hampshire Attorney General and Senator Warren Rudman in a sworn declaration.
Individual donors have also testified that contributions have provided them with access to influence officeholders on issues of concern to them. “As a result of my $500,000 soft money donation to the DNC, I was offered the chance to attend events with the President, including events at the White House, a number of times. I was offered special access…” said large contribution donor Arnold Hiatt in sworn testimony.
Reactions from liberal politicians were far more grave. U.S. Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would hold a hearing on the impact of "alarming Supreme Court decisions that have eviscerated our campaign finance laws." Senate Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, warned of further erosion of limits on special interest influence in elections. "This in itself is a small step, but another step on the road to ruination," Schumer said.
Citizens’ rights public interest groups have uniformly panned the decision. "With its Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions, the Supreme Court has turned our representative system of government into a sandbox for America's billionaires and millionaires to play in," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the public interest group Democracy 21. "The court's decisions have empowered a new class of American political oligarchs."
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