The decision announced by the Supreme Court of the United States sets up a potential bonanza of big bucks for political campaign war chests in the next election cycle. Speaking for the majority in the five to four decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that the cap on contributions to individual candidates of $5,200 for each federal election cycle remained intact; however, the overall aggregate cap on what a person can contribute to all candidates in one election cycle was eliminated.
The decision fell along party lines. The justices appointed by a Republican president voted with the majority and the justices appointed by Democrats in the oval office were on the losing side. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion joined by the other three justices in the minority and Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, meaning that he voted with the majority but did not entirely subscribe to the majority’s analysis of the law. Justice Thomas wrote that all campaign contributions caps should be scrapped, even those to individual candidates.
The majority based their decision on freedom of speech. The overriding right of free speech, as expressed through political contributions, overrides any concerns over unfair political advantage based on political race finance. Chief Justice Roberts noted that the results of free speech are often not pretty, such as allowing Nazi’s to speak out for their beliefs, but the principle of free speech is a bedrock for democracy and must trump laws not directly prohibiting behavior that leads to quid pro quo political incentives. The Chief Justice stated that the limits to individual campaigns could remain in place because the potential of a quid pro quo arrangement of votes for contributions was enough of a danger that the government could enact a limit. Justice Thomas argued that such limits were an unnecessary impediment to free speech because other laws already prohibit votes for hire.
The potential for big bucks benefiting political campaigns arises through the ability of a wealthy donor to create an across the board contribution bonanza for a large number of candidates. The former overall election cycle cap prevented one person from having a large influence on a large number of races, although exceptions did exist for the so-called Super Pac’s after the Citizens United decision in 2010.
Interestingly, the McCutcheon decision may strengthen the hand of the political parties. The previous cap on aggregate contributions limited what a person could give to a political party during an election cycle; therefore, the Super Pac’s provided a funding apparatus outside of party control. The elimination of the aggregate cap gives power back to the political parties to dole out funds to candidates who follow party lines. Congressional leadership such as the Speaker of the House and the Minority Leader should have enhanced power based on this decision.
While not a large percentage of donors have the financial wherewithal to spread around election contributions with wild abandon, those who do have the means can create a big bucks political campaign bonanza at the party level after McCutcheon, which will no doubt thrill party leadership. Even if the Democratic leaders say they are against the ruling, they will not return extra contributions any more than the Republicans will.
By William Costolo