Campaign finance law is back under the U.S. Supreme Court microscope this week as wealthy Alabama Republican Shaun McCutcheon hopes to persuade the court to do away with overall limits on what contributors may give in a two-year federal election cycle.
McCutcheon has the backing of the national Republican Party and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
In 2011 and 2012, McCutcheon gave the symbolic figure of $1,776 to a number of candidates and would have given it to others, but doing so would have been a violation of the overall limit of $123,200 per individual in any two-year period.
“It’s a very important case about your right to spend your money how you choose,” McCutcheon said.
Federal courts have repeatedly upheld reasonable donation limits — and rightly so — given the potential for corruption, or at least its appearance, that large donations can present for single candidates.
We’ve seen the outcome of the high court’s last clumsy swipe at election law, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, which opened the door to a flood of “Super PAC” money yielded wave after wave of deceptive and confusing ads aimed at getting candidates elected, but without any actual ties to the candidates.
That was the infamous case where the ideas of money as speech and corporations as people were inflicted upon the campaign system.
That case did not affect the federal ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidate campaigns or political parties, which remain illegal in races for federal office.
However, that may be next if McCutcheon is successful in throwing down limitations on individual contributions directly to candidates.
The caps were instituted under the Federal Election Campaign Act, which was amended in 1974 to add limits in the wake of corruption in the 1972 presidential election that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known as the McCain-Feingold Act, put more limits on campaign spending of so-called “soft money,” which had grown in prominence as part of campaign finance, and to rein in issue advocacy ads, by limiting ads that name specific candidates within a certain time period before elections.
Citizens United toppled much of that law and ushered in the “greed is good” era of campaign spending that we are now experiencing.
Given that ludicrous decision, it may be too much to hope the supreme court will retain limits on individual campaign spending, though they should.
And who knows how many more challenges are waiting in the wings to further crumble the precious illusions of free and fair elections?