The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, its latest campaign finance case. The case involves a fairly technical question of campaign finance law—whether so-called “aggregate” contribution limits are constitutional—but its implications are potentially huge. It’s the latest case in which the Court has focused on the central question in campaign finance law—what does it mean to say that campaign financing “corrupts” our political system? The Court has been tugging at the threads of this concept for a few years now, and supporters of the laws are worried that if it continues, all of campaign finance law will unravel.
To understand why, let’s start with the facts. Shaun McCutcheon, the businessman and activist at the heart of this case, wants to give $1776 to 28 candidates and another $25,000 to each of two political committees. These amounts are all within the legal limits for contributions to individual candidates and committees, but taken as a whole, they exceed the aggregate limits. Aggregate limits impose a ceiling on the total amount of money someone can contribute to all candidates and political committees during a two year period. Individual limits, by contrast, limit the amount you can give to any one candidate or committee.
McCutcheon’s question to the Supreme Court is simple: If he stays within the limits for, say, the first 27 candidates he wants to support, why is he barred from giving any money at all to the 28th candidate? Why, in other words, does the law care about the total amount of money people spend supporting candidates when their contributions to each candidate are within the individual limits?
Supporters of the aggregate limits say they are necessary to prevent donors from avoiding the individual limits. In theory, McCutcheon could direct a political committee to give some of his contribution to one of the candidates to whom he’s already contributed, resulting in more money going to that candidate than the individual limit allows. And even if no one exceeds the individual limits, supporters say the aggregate limits prevent the “appearance” of corruption by limiting the total amount that wealthy donors can spend supporting candidates. Under this view, if wealthy donors can spend millions supporting candidates, people will see our political system as a kind of auction, where politicians and the power they wield are sold to the highest bidder.
Opponents of the limits respond that McCutcheon is exercising his First Amendment rights. The First Amendment protects the right to associate with others, and under a representative form of government, citizens must be able to support the candidates of their choice.
Both sides have valid points under existing law. So how should the Court resolve this? More constitutional balancing tests? Endless theorizing about how money wends its way through campaigns?
Consider a more fundamental question: Why should government regulate campaign financing at all? No one seriously claims that we should impose a word limit on newspapers to prevent the possibility or “appearance” of libel. Why does the possibility of corruption justify regulating campaigns? More fundamentally, what does “corruption” actually mean and how is it being used in this context? And why do so many people seem to think that political power is being auctioned off to the highest bidder during elections? I’ll tackle these questions in future posts.