Breaking Down the McCutcheon Decision

Individuals now can make campaign contributions to an unlimited number of candidates, party committees, and federal political action committees (PACs). The Supreme Court’s 5-4 McCutcheon v. FECdecision did away with aggregate limits on individual contributions, freeing deep-pocketed donors to max-out to as many candidates and committees as they desire.

At issue in McCutcheon was the cap on overall contributions: Individual donors were prohibited from giving more than $48,600 to all candidates and $74,600 to all party and political action committees. This meant that donors could contribute no more than $123,200 in a two-year election cycle. Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, joined forces with the Republican National Committee to challenge aggregate limits on First Amendment grounds.

The decision left in place caps on individual contributions to candidates, party committees, and PACs. A donor can give $2,600 per candidate, per election (primary and general elections are counted separately); $32,400 per year to each national party committee; $10,000 per year to each state party committee, and; $5,000 per year to each federal PAC. But now they can give to as many candidates and committees as their bank accounts allow.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts invoked the First Amendment and said “there is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”  McCutcheon comes on the heels of the Court’s 2010 Citizens Uniteddecision, which struck down prohibitions on independent spending by corporations and unions. Since 1974, the law has allowed for individuals to make unlimited independent expenditures on behalf of candidates.

Dissenting from the bench, Justice Stephen Breyer described the decision as a blow to the First Amendment. “If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate.” Breyer was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor.

The reaction from Capitol Hill was predictable. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner praised the decision as a victory for First Amendment rights. Congressional Democrats condemned the decision and vowed to hold hearings and introduce various reform measures.

The decision will likely lead to a surge in joint fundraising committees, which allow candidates and party committees to join together for the purpose of soliciting contributions from donors who can write one, big check that is then divvied up among the participating candidates and committees. A candidate could, for example, set up a joint fundraising committee that raises money for his campaign, his leadership PAC, the national party organization, and his state party organization. Donors could then write one check for $52,600, which would allow them to max-out to the candidate ($5,200), to the leadership PAC ($5,000), to the national party organization ($32,400), and to the state party ($10,000) in one fell swoop.

Now that aggregate limits no longer exist, expect to see joint fundraising committees set up to benefit multiple candidates. Party leaders, for example, could establish joint fundraising committees designed to benefit their 25 most at-risk members, their congressional campaign committees, or party committees in states with competitive races.

The parties are also likely to benefit because donors can now max-out to multiple party committees. A wealthy Democratic donor, for example, could give $32,400 each to the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Expect to the see the parties take advantage of the McCutcheon decision by creating even more fundraising committees. Bundling, where organizations collect multiple contributions on behalf of individual candidates, is also likely to surge. With aggregate limits out the window, bundlers can now raise more money for more candidates.

Ironically, McCutcheon also killed an individual’s ability to tell the candidates and committees who solicit their contributions, “Sorry, I’ve maxed out for this cycle.” For this reason, McCutcheon is a mixed blessing for donors who want the right to give as much as they want. Their idea of “enough” may very well differ from those who want their money.

The McCutcheon decision can also be viewed as a mixed blessing for individual candidates. They can go after more donors because those donors can no longer claim to have maxed out, and they can more easily team up with their leaders and party organizations to raise money. But they’ll also be competing with the party organizations for big donor support. The decision will amount to more money in the campaign system, and more time devoted to raising that money.

Marian Currinder is Senior Fellow and Curriculum Chair at the Government Affairs Institute

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