McCutcheon Decision: Add Some More Zeroes to That Check

mccutcheon.ap.jpgToday’s Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, freeing individuals to give to an unlimited number of candidates, parties and PACs, could have a profound effect on this year’s midterm elections.

The decision overturns the limits on how much individuals can contribute overall to federal candidates, parties and PACs during a two-year period. Until today, the aggregate limit stood at $123,200 — no more than $48,600 to all candidates and $74,600 to all PACs and parties.

The opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts leaves in place the caps on how much can be given to each of those: $2,600 per election to each candidate, $32,400 per year to each national party committee, $10,000 per year to each state party and $5,000 per year to each federal PAC. But within these limits the totals can add up quickly. 

Starting now, one person can now give to a candidate in every House and Senate race in the country; doing so would add up to more than $2.4 million. That same person could give $97,200 each year to the three national party committees (assuming he or she wants to support only one party), along with at least $500,000 each year to state or local parties. There are also at least 1,600 PACs that currently have no restrictions on who may contribute to them. Any of those could receive up to $5,000 per year from this same individual, as could any corporate, association or membership PAC the donor is connected with through employment, membership or stockholding. Currently 182 Democrats and 218 Republicans in the 113th Congress have leadership PACs — maxing out to all the Democratic ones would total close to $1 million; to the GOP side, more than $1 million.

That would come to at least $1.2 million that one individual could give directly to parties in a cycle, plus nearly $2.5 million that could go directly to candidates, plus some uncertain amount sent to other PACs. And that doesn’t count whatever the person chose to give to super PACs and shadow money nonprofits. Both types of groups can continue to accept millions from a single donor to feed their efforts to elect or defeat  federal candidates.

How might this work?  The most popular way to get big checks from single donors so far has been through joint fundraising committees, which allows candidates to band together with parties and sometimes others to ask donors for one check that represents the limit to each of the participants. The Court’s action today likely will mean a surge in new joint fundraising committees and changes in existing ones to add many new participants so that a single check from a donor can surge past the $52,600 or so that is common today. How large these checks become will be limited only by the creativity of those running the committees and the leverage of the candidates who make the “ask.” 

So far in the 2014 cycle, Boehner for Speaker is the largest joint fundraising committee with receipts of $17.1 million; it raises money for Republican House Speaker John Boehner‘s (Ohio) campaign, his leadership PAC, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Ohio Republican Party.

The overall limit has had a clear effect on this Boehner committee. Until today, a donor would max out if he or she contributed $5,200 to the speaker’s campaign committee ($2,600 each for the primary and general elections), $32,400 to the NRCC, $10,000 to the Ohio Republican Party and $5,000 to Freedom Project, Boehner’s leadership PAC. The last three would be eligible for a similar amount in 2014.

 Sure enough, Boehner for Speaker reported receiving $52,600 from at least 27 different people last year. Similarly, twelve people have contributed $52,600 to the Cantor Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee benefiting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), his leadership PAC and the Virginia Republican Party. But that amount put donors well on their way to hitting the aggregate limits, so it hasn’t been particularly useful for these committees to add other recipients.

Now, though, the committees can add as many beneficiaries as they want and solicit much larger checks from donors.

It’s a win-win situation for donors, with additional opportunities to make an impression with more candidates and the national party. During the 2012 election, 644 people hit the aggregate limit, including hedge fund and private equity managers, developers and others — it’s a tiny elite.

One justice, Clarence Thomas, concurred with the majority opinion but would have gone even farther, essentially wiping out post-Watergate campaign finance law. In a separate opinion, Thomas made clear he would have overturned Buckley v. Valeo, the landmark 1976 campaign finance decision that said campaign contributions could be limited because of the danger of corruption. Overturning Buckley would do away not just with aggregate limits, but with limits on how much an individual could give to any one candidate.

For now, the per-candidate, per-PAC and per-party limits still stand.

Nevertheless, starting today, individuals with big checkbooks and either strongly held ideological views or important financial interests in federal policies have a chance to expand their role in the financing of politics. Elected officials and political professionals also have much more incentive to target these wealthy individuals as they search for the dollars they believe they need to compete.

Image: Businessman Shaun McCutcheon, the plaintiff in the case, leaves the Supreme Court after the October argument. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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About The Author

Bob Biersack

Prior to joining the Center in 2011, Bob spent thirty years on the Staff of the U.S. Federal Election Commission, developing and promoting disclosure. He has served as the Commission's Statistician, its Press Officer, and as a special assistant working to redesign the disclosure process. A graduate of Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Bob has written extensively on campaign finance, political parties, and interest groups, and is co-editor of <i>After the Revolution: PACs Lobbies, and the Republican Congress, and Risky Business?: PAC Decision-making in Congressional Elections</i>. You can follow Bob on Twitter at @rbiersack