What's McCutcheon v FEC? Your Simple Guide to This Landmark Campaign Finance Case

The Case:

Suan McCutcheon, a Republican donor and owner of the Coalmont Electrical Development Corporation, is challenging a regulation set down the by Federal Electoral Commission (FEC) on the limit of total political contributions an individual can make in an election cycle. Under FEC regulations, an election cycle is defined as two years and the total limits are $48,600 on federal candidates and $74,600 on local, state, or national political parties or political action committees (PACs). This means that an individual can only give a total of $123,200 over two years. During the last election Mr. McCutcheon gave $1,776 to 15 candidates and wanted to give more but could not.

This case follows a long line of cases from Buckley v. Valeo, McConnell v. FEC, and Minnesota Citizens Concerned For Life v. FEC to Citizens United v. FEC. All of these cases revolve around campaign finances and started with Buckley v. Valeo which recognized monetary donations are “speech” protected under the First Amendment, but also said such speech could be regulated with aggregate limits.

The Implications:

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of McCutcheon, individuals would be allowed to donate potentially unlimited amounts to any campaign or political party. For instance, in the last election cycle about 646 individuals reached their donor limits and were barred from contributing more to candidates or political parties. These wealthy individuals would be allowed to contribute more, as well as other potential donors from the middle class.

It is, however, difficult to say with full certainty what the full effects of a ruling in favor of McCutcheon would be. Even the justices of the Supreme Court, those both for and against the regulation, expressed uncertainty over whether or not large donations led to corruption and if they did by how much. It is true that spending on campaigns has increased, with the last presidential election costing a combined record $2.5 billion. The donations for such campaigns come from four sources, three of which are publicly disclosed: political party committee fundraisers, candidate fundraisers with individual contributions, PACs and Super PACs, and social welfare groups which aren’t required to reveal their donors. 

Those in Favor of the Regulation:

Those who are in favor of continued contribution limits have used two arguments:

1. That a sense of obligation to donors causes corrupt dealmaking in which favors by politicians are effectively purchased.

2. That current regulations are insufficient and to strike one down would only increase the power of special interests.

Regulators and others warn that McCutcheon and other wealthy donors' influence will greatly increase since if the limit is struck down they “will be able to write campaign checks of up to $3.6 million a pop.” They argue that the arguments justifying regulations set down in Buckley v. Valeo still apply in order to prevent corruption or the “appearance of corruption.” An example they give is Romney’s presidential campaign promising certain donors special access to the first inaugural retreat.

They also argue that current regulations don’t go far enough. For instance, Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority decision on the 2010 Citizens United case that the public disclosure of those who donated and how much would keep donors and politicians responsible and honest, but there appears to have been a rise in the number of organizations that don't have to reveal their contributors.  

Those Against the Regulation:

Those who wish to strike down limits on donations have used three arguments:

1. That limits on donations are limits on individuals’ freedom of speech and therefore is unconstitutional.

2. That limits are unnecessary since there already caps and regulations on PACs and laws against quid-pro-quo corruption.

3. The current limits are problematic because they are set by the very people they most effect and thus are skewed in favor of incumbents.

McCutcheon’s lawyers and others warn that restrictions on how much an individual can donate to a campaign violates free speech as outlined in Buckley v. Valeo since it shouldn’t be a question of how much one is allowed to speak/donate, but whether they can at all. Towards this end they explain that the case isn’t so much about the overall amount that one is allowed to give, but rather the idea that such a limit restricts individuals from associating with and supporting as many groups or candidates as a citizen would like.

It has also been argued that the regulations on campaign finance are unnecessary, since there are “limits on how much an individual can give to a political action committee... and any PACs that are related to it, as well as on the amount of money that a PAC and any related entities can give to candidates or political party committees.” 

Finally it has been argued that there is a problem that the government itself is setting up such regulations since those regulations greatly affect it. Conservative columnist George Will argues that the limits and other regulatory numbers seem arbitrary and asks how Congress has the wisdom to know that one dollar more of donations somehow instantly causes corruption. He also believes that the current limits skew the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents of both parties, as much other “self-regulating” legislation does.

Likely Outcome:

The outcome of the case is uncertain. As SCOTUSBlog put it, “The justices who favor limits on campaign donations seemed to believe that the current system is corrupting in favor of the rich, but that they still would like some harder information on just how that happens. And the justices who favor the freer flow of money into federal campaigns seemed to think there are enough safeguards against corruption already and that any more will stifle political expression, of the not so rich, too. But anything like a consensus that could attract five votes eluded both sides.” However if the vote does end up going in favor of McCutcheon and thus striking down the restrictions, it will likely be due to the votes of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, who are more conservative or have a record of opposing campaign-finance restrictions.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

John Grover

Senior at Bowdoin College. Love all things political, especially international relations. Am a moderate conservative who draws upon a classical liberal understanding of the social contract. Hope to join in building a better world through the State Department.

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