Watch out! Supreme Court weighing new challenge to campaign contribution limits

Posted by Dale Eisman on February 19, 2013

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If you've got plenty of money -- and I mean PLENTY -- and you want to spend gobs and gobs of it electing political candidates and helping political parties, you may be pleased about today's news from the Supreme Court.

But if you're worried about government corruption and you'd like our elected officials to pay more attention to the public interest than to the folks who send fat checks to their campaigns and party organizations, put McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission on your personal radar screen.

The high court announced on Tuesday that it will hear arguments in McCutcheon, a case challenging the aggregate limits on campaign contributions set by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law of 2001. If the justices ultimately uphold the challenge, and their recent history unfortunately suggests they might, the wealthiest Americans will gain yet another avenue for attempts to purchase favors from the federal government.

The McCain-Feingold law, officially known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, puts an aggregate, indexed-for-inflation limit on the amount of money an individual can contribute to federal candidates, political parties and political action committees during any two-year election cycle.

The limit currently sits at $117,000 -- $46,200 for contributions to candidates and $70,800 for donations to parties and PACs. McCutcheon is not challenging the limit on donations an individual may make to a single candidate or party committee. And of course, donations to independent "Super PACs,' created in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision, already are unlimited.

Only a handful of people -- fewer than 1,000 in the 2010 election cycle -- hit the 2010 aggregate limit. The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign fundraising and spending, found 746 donors who gave $95,000 or more during that period.

If the high court sides with McCutcheon, those donors could buy even more influence, "maxing-out" at more than $3.5 million per cycle in 2014. They'd be able to donate $5,200 to each of a party's House and Senate candidates, $32,400 to each of a party's three federal committees, and $10,000 to each of a party's 50 state committees per year.

Nobody invests that kind of money, or anything approaching it, into a campaign or a political party without expecting a return. And the more people invest, the more they tend to want, whether it's in the form of tax loopholes, government contracts, regulatory relief or some other favor from a government official or agency.

"The answer to the flood of money in our politics is not "more money.'" Common Cause President Bob Edgar observed in a statement after the court's announcement.

"Today's action underscores the need for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United and permitting Congress and our state legislatures to impose reasonable limits on individual and corporate political spending," Edgar added. "Millions of Americans voted for such an amendment in referendums last fall, millions more have spoken for it through actions by their city councils and state legislators. It's time for Congress to act and send an amendment to the states for ratification."

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Money in Politics

Tags: Citizens United

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