The Supreme Court made a ruling last week that has received relatively little attention given the influence it will have on American politics going forward.
In the McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission ruling, the Supreme Court eliminated caps limiting the total amount of money a donor is allowed to give to political campaigns and committees in a given year. Here’s a breakdown of what the court’s ruling will change.
Federal law limits the amount of money an individual can give to both an individual political campaign and to a political action committee (PAC) in a year. Per year, a person cannot donate more than $2,500 to any individual political campaign or $5,000 to a given PAC. Federal law also used to cap the total amount of money a person could give to all political campaigns and committees in a year. These caps were set at $48,600 to campaigns and $74,600 to PACs annually.
In the past you couldn’t, for example, give the $2,500 individual limit to 70 different Democratic House candidates in a year. That would far exceed the $48,600 total campaign donation cap. Combined with the $74,600 total PAC donation cap, the most an individual could donate in the past to political causes per year was $123,200. These limits are referred to as aggregate caps.
The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision just wiped out both aggregate caps.
Though the individual campaign and PAC caps are still in place, the $48,600 campaign and $74,600 PAC aggregate caps have been eliminated. So not only can a wealthy donor now give the $2,500 individual campaign limit to as many candidates as they wish, they can also give $5,000 to as many PACs as they wish.
The aggregate cap eliminations open up the door for wealthy donors to pour millions of new dollars into elections. Many would say this is bad news at a time when so many complain that elections are essentially bought with money from special interest groups.
The ruling also significantly devalues the smaller campaign contributions given by citizens of ordinary wealth. Here’s how the organization Demos estimates the new law would have impacted the 2012 presidential elections had it been in place at the time:
“Without aggregate contribution limits, we estimate that in 2012 just 1219 elite donors would have given nearly 50% more money to parties, candidates, and PACs than President Obama and Governor Romney raised combined from more than 4 million small donors.”
House Speaker John Boehner praised the ruling, saying “Donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.” Meanwhile others, like Public Citizen president Robert Weissman, say the decision takes even more political influence away from everyday people and places it in the hands of a wealthy few.
“This is truly a decision establishing plutocrat rights,” Weissman said. “The Supreme Court today holds that the purported right of a few hundred super rich individuals to spend outrageously large sums on campaign contributions outweighs the national interest in political equality and a government free of corruption."