Shaun McCutcheon doesn’t like that there is a cap on the total amount of money that one person is permitted to contribute to federal candidates, parties, and political-action committees. And he is hoping that, someday soon, the Supreme Court will grant his wish by striking these limits when it rules on his case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
Mr. McCutcheon describes himself as “an Alabama electrical engineer . . . fighting for your right to support as many political candidates and parties as you like.” Echoing this, some in the media have called Mr. McCutcheon a “regular guy.” These statements demand closer examination because, if taken at face value, they might create a misimpression as to what is at stake in the Supreme Court case.
Mr. McCutcheon is not just an electrical engineer. Electrical engineers average $91,810 in wages per year. The campaign finance regulations he is challenging in the Supreme Court currently set aggregate biennial federal contributions limits at $123,200. When juxtaposed, these two figures suggest that Mr. McCutcheon is better understood by the other hat he wears: owner of an energy company.
To put it plainly, although his net worth is not public, Mr. McCutcheon must be quite rich. More than half of Americans would consider themselves rich if they earned $150,000 per year. In the 2012 election cycle alone, Mr. McCutcheon spent more than double that amount to influence politics across the United States.
While Mr. McCutcheon’s economic status should not exclude him from expressing his support for political candidates and parties, it highlights that his interests likely diverge from those of most Americans. As described in Demos’s Stacked Deck report, studies confirm that the concerns of wealthy people differ from those held by the majority of the American public on important issues like raising the minimum wage and prioritizing higher education over tax cuts. And government policies generally reflect the preferences of the wealthy, supporting the intuition that a small number of individuals can distort the democratic process.
Moreover, Mr. McCutcheon’s claim that he is fighting for your right to support as many political candidates and parties is, at best, imprecise. First, the campaign finance laws Mr. McCutcheon is challenging before the Supreme Court do not limit the number of political candidates and parties that an individual may support. These statutory provisions merely limit the total amount of money an individual may contribute to candidates and parties contesting in federal elections. And even these monetary limits do not prevent an individual from expressing her support for as many candidates and parties as she likes—she just has to divvy up the permissible contribution amounts.
To make this latter point more concrete, let’s apply the challenged $48,600 candidate contribution limit to the congressional races that took place last year or are scheduled for this one. In 2013 and 2014, there will be 476 congressional races. This means Mr. McCutcheon could donate more than $100 directly to his preferred candidate in every single one of these races—from his home district in Alabama to the statewide district in Alaska—without violating the two-year aggregate contribution limits currently before the Supreme Court.
Second, Mr. McCutcheon’s suggestion that he is fighting for your rights privileges an empty, formal notion of equality over true, substantive equality. In 2012, the median family income in the United States was $51,017. This means an average American family could contribute their entire income for two years and still not bump up against the aggregate federal contribution limits that Mr. McCutcheon has devoted so much time and energy to challenging. Rather, only about 1,200 individuals even came close to the contribution limits in 2012.
In the nineteenth century, philosopher Anatole France wrote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” If Mr. McCutcheon gets his way in the Supreme Court, average Americans will have the same “right” as wealthy donors like Mr. McCutcheon to contribute more than $3 million to each party’s candidates and committees (plus virtually unlimited amounts to political-action committees). And supporters of such a decision will sing of how the right of free speech allows us all equally to spend millions of dollars to have our voices heard and influence who runs for office and wins elections without once acknowledging the principles of self-governance, political accountability, and responsiveness that the First Amendment was designed to protect.