The Supreme Court recently struck down limits on the total amount an individual can contribute to federal candidates and political party committees with their ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
The 5-to-4 decision on April 2 does not change the limits on how much an individual can give to an individual candidate or political group. Instead it eliminates the limit on the total amount of money a donor can give to all federal candidates and political groups. The case was brought by Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee after McCutcheon was stopped from donating more money to individual candidates by the overall cap for individuals.
Reactions to the ruling have been highly congruent along party lines, with conservatives praising it and liberals rebuking it. Brian J. Gaines, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the ruling won’t change much.
“People who say [the ruling] is a real game changer aren’t thinking really hard about what the Congressional landscape looks like,” said Gaines. “It is not likely to weaken incumbents or make the races more competitive.”
The main cause for outcry has been the possibility of giving a few wealthy donors too much influence in the election cycle. Many are criticizing the ruling because to them it signals a shift towards a political oligarchy.
Weinberg senior, Samuel Ide, believes the ruling was flawed. “It takes the electoral process away from the average voter and the average values of most of the electorate,” he said “and puts it in the hands of a few.”
The decision has continued the trend of campaign financing deregulation, which the Supreme Court has upheld, most famously through their Citizens United ruling. Citizens United struck down the limits on political spending by corporations and unions.
Like Citizens United, the majority in the McCutcheon trial cited the first amendment right to freedom of speech as their reason for ruling. Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the controlling opinion, “There is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”
Any regulation must target “quid pro quo corruption or its appearance,” said Roberts, referring to any exchange of an official act for money.
Roberts isn’t the only one who sees this as the upholding of free speech. Weinberg junior Ben Koltun responded to the critics of the court by asking, would the same people who decry the court view a wealthy donor to candidates that backed liberal values as a corrupting influence? “I doubt it,” he answered. “Free speech is meant to protect even the speech we may fundamentally disagree with.”
While Koltun agrees that the ruling makes sense on constitutional grounds, he said, “to state it’s a win for freedom of speech implies that there was a significant impairment on speech before McCutcheon, which was not really the case.”
Medill associate professor and veteran political reporter Peter Slevin noted that the ruling shifts influence to a select few with deep pockets and this requires more overview.
“The decision makes it essential to have transparency in the system, to be able to track the flow of money, its sources and its destination.”
The true effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling will be better understood once federal elections kick off this November.
Though Gaines believes the ruling won’t have huge consequences, he knows that in politics any prediction or theory is easily amendable.
“We won’t know exactly what it does for a while, he said. “Take all predictions with a grain of salt.”