Since SCOTUS broke their decision to strike down caps on aggregate donations to individual campaigns, parties, and political action committees, there has been much debate on the issue. The left has decried the decision for perpetuating the “1%” politics that of Citizen’s United, while the right has praised the decision for maintaining important first amendment rights. But what’s really important to analyze is what effect this will have on future elections.
To quickly summarize the ramifications of the decision: this doesn’t change the limit on contributions to an individual. In other words, the $5,200 limit that one can donate to an individual is unchanged. But what changed is the aggregate amount you can donate this maximum of $5,200. Before, there was a $48,600 per year limit that maxed out donors at nine individuals. Now, after the McCutcheon decision, that limit no longer exists. As Justin Levitt of Politico parsed out, that means $2.8 million for each of a party’s candidates for House and Senate if each party had one candidate.
In the past, campaign finance Supreme Court decisions have been decided based on whether they encourage corruption. More specifically, if something elicits quid pro quo exchanges, it should be considered unconstitutional. This was the basis for the McCutcheon decision. As the justices saw it, allowing for a greater number of individuals worthy to receive these donations will simply expand an individuals first amendment rights.
While I do agree with the justices on a practical level, I think the symbolic ramifications of the decision are much greater. Realistically, a PAC is still the obvious choice to donate to for the mega rich. With their unrestricted maximum donation threshold, PACs allow the wealthy to exhibit a much greater realm of influence. On top of that, donors are much less likely to donate to parties in general, as is permitted by this decision. The ability to donate to a PAC, which is geared towards supporting a specific candidate or taking down a specific candidate, is likely much more appealing than leaving the money’s end location up to the discretion of the party. Additionally, considering that individuals will still receive the same maximum donations from donors, the ruling will not affect the average amount spent on a campaign too drastically. It will simply increase the number of donors marginally. It is unlikely to see huge donors like the Koch brothers or Sheldon Anderson focus their money on party’s national committee, state party committees, or individual candidates. But where this decision is most important is in what it means symbolically. It will eliminate people maxing out on donations to individuals at a much smaller threshold. $48,600 is a level that a much larger portion of the population could handle. Now the population of upper echelon donors will be greatly restricted. So, in effect, the left’s argument of perpetuating a 1% mentality is grounded in some very likely evidence. But, this doesn’t necessarily make it unconstitutional. And it certainly doesn’t require the same attention that the groundbreaking Citizen’s United decision did. That ruling was so important because it had and still has massive ramifications on the level of spending on future campaigns. In 2012, both Mitt Romney and President Obama spent almost $1 billion each on their respective campaigns. This was a huge leap from 2008, when Obama spent a little over $750 million and John McCain spent a bit over $350 million. McCutcheon will not cause this sort of change, but it definitely keeps the ball rolling in the right’s direction and speaks towards where the future of campaign finance is going. A country where $1 billion plus campaigns are the norm.
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