Aggregate spending limits should be unconstitutional
Published: Sunday, October 13, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 13, 2013 21:10
Last Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case over a campaign finance restriction known as aggregate political donation limits. A majority of the court seemed prepared to strike down the law in what has been billed as the sequel to the court’s landmark 2010 decision in “Citizens United.”
The petitioner in the case is Shaun McCutcheon, a successful, conservative Alabama businessman who wants to be free to donate his earned income to as many political candidates as he desires. Currently, he and countless other donors are prohibited from donating more than a total of $48,600 to candidates over a two-year span. This is the central question the court will consider—whether it is constitutional to cap combined individual political contributions. It is important to understand, however, that McCutcheon is not contesting the “base limits” provision in the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. So, even if the court strikes down the aggregate limits provision, he will still be prohibited from giving more than $2,600 for a single candidate.
The $48,600 aggregate limits cap is wholly nonsensical and should be struck down by the court. Proponents of the law, on the other hand, will contend that these laws are intended to prevent corruption and to curb an unfair degree of political influence held by the wealthy. But, does giving $2,600 to 20 or 25 candidates instead of 18 truly minimize corruption, particularly since one can give an unlimited amount of money to a political action committee?
If the court were to declare the cap unconstitutional, it would simultaneously be overturning the deeply flawed 1976 decision, Buckley v. Valeo. Then, the court declared that Congress is legally permitted to limit individual contributions in the name of preventing quid pro quo corruption. This sparked a desire among the left to impose restrictions on political donations, and eventually to the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. However, as a consequence to the stringent laws pertaining to direct contributions to candidates themselves, organizations that can accept an unlimited amount of money from individuals (though not directly affiliated with the candidates) grew in popularity. These organizations, called super PACs, have attracted the big donors like George Soros and Sheldon Adelson. Even among smaller donors like McCutcheon, these PACS have become the only conceivable alternative for one wanting to engage in political speech.
The more broad issue at stake is here is whether there is “too much money in politics,” and whether that money buys undue influence for many. In my view, these assertions are completely misguided. Sure, there is a lot of money involved in politics—approximately $6.3 billion was spent on the 2012 election according to many estimates, for instance—but Americans also spent more than $4 billion on St. Patrick’s day, $2.3 billion on tattoos, $17 billion on video games, $15 billion playing fantasy football and $40 billion on cosmetics. I may be missing something, but I do not see an issue with spending a third of what we spend on video games on politics.
Furthermore, it is inherently contrary to the First Amendment to prevent individuals from expressing their political leanings via campaign donations. A historic and imbedded principle of American democracy has been the importance of the involvement of the general public. Since not everybody has the spare time to knock on doors or distribute mailers, many resort to simply writing a check so that others can participate in direct efforts on behalf of candidates. Preventing someone from giving to as many candidates as they desire, whether it be within the current limit or beyond, is contrary to this principle. But to be clear, I’m not arguing for the elimination of all campaign finance regulations. In fact, I am sympathetic to the notion that one should not be able to spend an unlimited amount of money on one particular candidate.
But there is no logical rationale to justify aggregate donation limits and that is why I firmly believe that the court, which overturned a law preventing corporations and unions from participating in elections in 2010, will render aggregate limits unconstitutional.