McCutcheon v. FEC Frequently Asked Questions

September 2013

With Update: January 2015

Who is McCutcheon?

Shaun McCutcheon is an Alabama businessman who has teamed up with the Republican National Committee (“RNC”) to challenge the FEC’s $123,200 aggregate contribution limit on federal campaign donations.

What is an aggregate contribution limit?

It’s the combined amount of money that any one person is allowed to donate in a two-year election cycle to federal candidates, national and state political parties and other political committees that make contributions to candidates.  

(Thanks to the DC circuit’s application of Citizens United in a case called SpeechNow v. FEC, there is no limit on individual gifts to political committees that only make “independent” expenditures (a.k.a. “Super PACs”), like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.)

What’s at stake here?  How is this different than Citizens United?

This case is the bad sequel to Citizens United.  In that case, the Supreme Court lifted the floodgates to unlimited spending by corporations and wealthy individuals to influence elections, paving the way to Super PACs and other “independent” spending.  The rush of outside, anonymous money made the 2012 presidential race the most expensive in history.  McCutcheon is about contributions that go directly to candidates and political parties.  

What does this mean for candidates? Aren’t they still subject to individual contribution limits?

While limits that an individual or PAC can give directly to any one candidate, party committee or political committee would stay on the books, eliminating the aggregate contribution limit will allow candidates and parties to easily circumvent those limits.

Why would the Supreme Court make a ruling like that after seeing what happened in Citizens United?

The Supreme Court has never before struck down a federal contribution limit and has held for decades that contribution limits are consistent with the First Amendment to guard against corruption and the appearance of corruption.  That said, this Court has shown a propensity to chip away case by case at our nation’s campaign finance laws because of a flawed equation of money as speech and a very narrow (and naïve) view of what qualifies as corruption.

If there’s all this big money in the system, what can be done about it?

There’s no doubt we have a broken system that’s nothing short of legalized bribery. It gives the most influence to those who spend the most money, and that’s hurting America.  People know Washington isn’t looking out for them and that the game is rigged in favor of big contributors. Our elected officials are looking out for who paid for their campaigns. That needs to change.

Common Cause sees short, medium and long term ways to change.  

In the short term, Congress and other federal agencies, like the FEC and SEC, must require more disclosure around political spending and advertising.  Corporations should now be required to disclose to their shareholders their political spending.  We also need better rules for how Super PACs interact and coordinate with candidates. In 2012, both President Obama and Governor Romney endorsed their own Super PACs that took unlimited contributions.  These candidate-specific Super PACs were little more than unofficial arms of the campaigns, essentially set up to do an end run around contribution limits to the campaigns themselves.

In the medium term, we need to pass small donor-funded public finance systems at the state and federal level. Maine, Arizona and Connecticut prove it works well.  Doing so means candidates will spend less time talking to special interest donors cutting maxed-out checks, and more time talking to their voters and constituents.

Lastly, we need a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and make clear once and for all that Congress can regulate the role of money in our political campaigns.  Some 17 states are already on record in support of urging their federal representatives to support an amendment that says corporations don’t have the same rights as people to participate in our elections, and Congress and state legislatures may impose reasonable limits on political spending.


 Update: January 2015

What did the U.S. Supreme Court decide?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in April 2014 that the aggregate contribution limit on federal campaign donations violate McCutcheon’s First Amendment right to free speech. The majority decision retained limits on donations to a single candidate, which as of January 2015 is $5,400 ($2,700 each for a primary and general election; $10,800 for a couple), but said the law cannot restrict the number of candidates to whom a donor can contribute. With the overall contribution limits eliminated, an individual donor who elects to give the maximum to every presidential, House and Senate candidate and party committee could spend up to $3.6 million per election cycle. And all of that money could be solicited by a single candidate, who would have a powerful incentive to follow the donor’s wishes on legislation and other matters.[1]


[1] Common Cause, “McCutcheon v.FEC.” Accessed January 6, 2015.

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