McCutcheon v. FEC: What You Need to Know
In October, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to one type of contribution limits—what individuals can give in total, or “aggregate,” to all federal political candidates or committees. Because the case could allow huge checks to start flowing from big donors directly to candidates and party committees hundreds of people protested outside the court during the arguments (watch this video or check out this Storify of the protest).
The Supreme Court could release its decision any day now. Here’s what you need to know.
1. An Alabama coal executive and the Republican National Committee want the Supreme Court to throw out “aggregate contribution limits.” The case is called McCutcheon v. FEC.
Federal law sets limits on what individuals can donate to federal candidates, parties, and political action committees (PACs).
The case before the Supreme Court, as presented, would not touch limits on what individuals can give to any single candidate ($5,200 per election cycle), PAC ($5,000 per year), or national political party ($32,400 per year).
Instead, the case is about a sort of “super limit” on contributions—what individuals can give across all federal committees. For the 2014 cycle, there is a total limit of $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to political parties and PACs. That's an overall limit of $123,200, or more than twice what average American families make in a year. They're usually called “aggregate contribution limits.”
On October 8th, lawyers for Shaun McCutcheon and the RNC argued before the Supreme Court that this super limit should be thrown out.
2. Throwing out one or both aggregate contribution limits would put our elections more squarely in the hands of a wealthy few.
The wealthy already have a pretty big say in our political process. Just one ten thousandth of Americans (about 31,000 people) made up a full 25 percent of all campaign contributions in the 2012 election cycle, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
In 2012, about 1,200 people reached, or got close to, the overall aggregate limit ($123,200) being challenged, according to Public Campaign analysis of campaign finance data. A quarter of these donors work on Wall Street or in the finance sector. About 1 in 6 of the country’s billionaires are on the list.
Like all of us, these donors have a stake in the outcome of elections. But what separates these big donors from regular people is that they get special treatment and access most Americans can’t afford.
Throwing out aggregate contribution limits—including striking down just the candidate limit—would only increase political inequality, giving those who already have a megaphone in politics an amplifier.
3. Sen. Mitch McConnell thinks McCutcheon doesn’t go far enough.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the leading opponent of common sense campaign finance policy in Congress, wants the Court to get rid of limits altogether, a move that would allow wealthy Americans to donate unlimited sums directly to candidates of their choice—something even McCutcheon has said he doesn’t support.
4. Following past precedent, the Court should uphold the limits.
Contribution limits are an important tool toward limiting government corruption by outside interests and there is longstanding precedent for upholding them.
Eighty-five members of the U.S. House and two-dozen organizations—groups like the AARP, NAACP, and Sierra Club—have signed “friend of the court” briefs calling on the court to uphold the limits.
Our elections shouldn’t just be an argument between wealthy Democrats and wealthy Republicans. The Supreme Court should side with the voices of everyday people and defend these common sense limits on how much influence wealthy special interests can buy in Washington.