Is This Supreme Court Case the Next ‘Citizens United’?

October 7, 2013 | | Frontline |

Three years ago, the Supreme Court reshaped how campaigns are funded with its Citizens United decision, which ruled that restricting political donations by corporations, association and labor unions infringed on these groups’ freedom of speech.

What followed, in 2012, was the most expensive election cycle in American history.

Now a new case, McCutcheon v. FEC, to be argued on Tuesday before the Supreme Court, aims to further challenge campaign contributions, this time arguing that the cap on aggregate contribution limits for donors is unconstitutional.

Currently, the maximum total contribution that a single donor can make to parties, candidates and PACs during a two-year federal election cycle is $123,200.

But Shaun McCutcheon, a major Republican donor from Alabama, is arguing — with the help of the Republican National Committee — that these aggregate limits should be thrown out. They teamed up with James Bopp Jr., the intellectual architect behind Citizens United, to make their case. [...]

A Post-McCutcheon Campaign

Dropping the aggregate limits would bring more than $1 billion into the political system by 2020, according to new research by Demos, a nonpartisan think tank and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, known as Pirg, a consumer advocacy group.

The groups, which oppose McCutcheon, sought to quantify the impact a favorable Supreme Court ruling could have on the political system.

They identified 1,219 “elite” donors who gave at or near the aggregate contribution limit in the 2012 election cycle — a total of $155.2 million to candidates, parties, and PACs. They estimate that without the limits, the donors could have contributed nearly $460 million — a sum that is nearly 50 percent more than all the money that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney raised from small donors.

The researchers based their estimates on how many donors have both the “ability and the motivation” to increase their giving, and how many would do so moderately or more aggressively, they said. So they plotted out two scenarios, in which donors gave more moderately or contributed significantly more.  But the researchers argued that because this would also allow parties to solicit bigger checks, donors might be more likely to respond in kind. The project’s full methodology is broken down here.

Already, “our government is more responsive to the priorities of the donor class,” which don’t always align with ordinary Americans struggling in a weak economy, said Liz Kennedy, an attorney at Demos. “We argue that with citizen confidence at historic lows, the court should not make matters worse.”