Oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC will be heard by the eight justices of the Supreme Court on Tuesday. It could dwarf Citizens United in the changes it wreaks on our electoral system.
It began, like too many bad ideas do, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. A conservative election lawyer, Dan Backer, was on a panel about campaign finance limits and predicted that they would rise. In attendance at that 2012 conference was electrical engineer and GOP activist Shaun McCutcheon, also the CEO of Coalmont Electrical Development Corp. in McCalla, Alabama. McCutcheon caught up with Backer and expressed his frustration with something he had recently found out: there are limits on the amount any individual can contribute in a two-year election cycle ($123,200), foiling his plan to give $1,776 to a range of conservative candidates.
"[Backer] could tell I didn't like [the limits], so he said we could challenge and it would go all the way to the Supreme Court," McCutcheon recalled to The Huffington Post. "I didn't really believe him."
From there, the RNC and Mitch McConnell jumped on board to support the Alabama CEO in his quest to undo aggregate limits on how much an individual can contribute to candidates and committees, eventually leading to this milestone in the movement to undo almost any limits on money in politics.
"But what makes no sense to me, and what my case is solely about," writes Shaun McCutcheon in Politico, "are the aggregate limits. Somehow, I can give the individual limit, now $2,600, to 17 candidates without corrupting the system. But as soon as I give that same amount to an 18th candidate, our democracy is suddenly at risk. Only politicians in Washington could come up with something so absurd. Think about it: If a $2,600 contribution won’t corrupt 17 candidates, then the same size contribution wouldn’t corrupt 18 … or 28 … or 38."
McCutcheon's logic kind of makes sense, until you start asking yourself what kind of person is going to donate to 38 candidates? It's going to be a moneyed activist, just like McCutcheon, who's going to be sticking his or her cash into the pocket of a representative, your representative, who is far outside their own district or state.
This could open floodgates that even Citizens United didn't touch. In that case, decided several years ago, limits were struck down on how much one could donate to independent expenditure groups, Super PACs, that can spend on behalf of a candidate but can’t coordinate with them. In McCutcheon v. FEC, we’re in part talking about contributions to candidates and candidate's committees themselves. That's a much more direct line of influence.
Indeed, McCutcheon’s petition to the court essentially points out that because of Citizens United, there are essentially so many holes already in campaign finance law, that striking down another only makes sense. If the Supreme Court agrees with him, you can expect 2014 and 2016 and every election thereafter to be further controlled by the moneyed interests that will be lining the candidate’s campaign coffers and helping them bombard the general voting public with commercials filled with the half-truths we've become all-too accustomed to.
Such a decision wouldn’t make the system more equal, or unlock speech, it would further corrupt an electoral system that's already on its knees. If McCutcheon v. FEC goes the way that some commenters think it will, a constitutional amendment striking down the principle that money is speech maybe the only route left to those who are truly lovers of liberty.
Author's note: no relation to Shaun McCutcheon.