This Supreme Court Case Could Usher In a "System of Legalized Corruption"

October 8, 2013 | | Mother Jones |

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that's been dubbed "the next Citizens United." The plaintiff, GOP donor Shaun McCutcheon, and his conservative allies say the case is about getting rid of restrictions on political spending that stifle free speech. Campaign finance watchdogs, meanwhile, fear the case could eviscerate an important piece of what's left of the federal laws governing money in politics.McCutcheon, says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, will decide "whether we return to the system of legalized corruption we have had in the past and that has led to some of the worst Washington corruption scandals in the nation's history."

Here's what you need to know about the case. [...]

What happens if the overall donation cap is eliminated? Campaign finance watchdogs and supporters of tough campaign regulations say if McCutcheon prevails a single donor will be able to give nearly $3.7 million (PDF) by maxing out his or her donations to every candidate of his preferred political party, every state committee of that party, and the national party and its affiliated committees. With the overall limit scrapped, watchdogs argue, party operatives could create mega-fundraising committees that can solicit seven-figure checks and then spread the money far and wide within their party at the federal and state level.

Big donors would be free to dole out far more money if the cap went away. The left-leaning think tank Demos found that 1,219 top-tier donors donated $155.2 million to candidates, parties, and PACs in the 2012 cycle. Without an aggregate contribution limit, Demos projects that those same donors would have given $459.3 million. And who are these elite donors? According to a Sunlight Foundation analysis, two-thirds of the top 1,000 donors in 2012 primarily gave to Republicans, and more than a third hailed from the financial sector.