Friday, April 4, 2014

Does It Matter If There Are Not Limits on Aggregate, Individual Campaign Contributions?

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (see ruling here) that the aggregate limits on political campaign contributions are unconstitutional. One side decries this ruling as the end of the democratic process and thinks that there will be more money adversely influencing politics because it gives politically motivated rich people an even more disproportionate say than they already have. The other side considers the ruling a victory for the First Amendment, can save the electoral process from gridlock, and make federal elections more substantive. What exactly is going on with this case to cause such hullabaloo from both sides?

Shaun McCutcheon, who was a general contractor in Alabama, wanted to donate funds to federal campaigns in the 2012 elections. However, McCutcheon was limited by the $48,000 cap on individual, aggregate contributions by §441a(a)(3) of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). The FECA was created in response to Watergate, thereby preventing further corruption in elections. Normally, I would come up with a conclusion as to what I think about the ramifications of the ruling and how it will affect the future of campaign contributions. Instead, I will merely list a few considerations going forward:
  1. There is no compelling empirical evidence as to whether limits such as the ones the Supreme Court ruled against actually work or not. If such evidence existed, it would be easier to make a call. Even the evidence of whether money guarantees campaign victories is ambiguous, which is problematic if the only basis for such regulation is the prevention of quid pro quo corruption and said regulation does not explicitly target the corruption in question.
  2. I don't see aggregate limits on campaign contributions so much of an infringement on the First Amendment as much as an infringement on economic freedom. As Chief Justice Roberts indicated in his ruling, "money in politics at times seems repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects." Unless the money is used to harm someone else (e.g., money used to hire a hit-man), I really don't care what people do with their money, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. In spite of all the talk about the rich overpowering the electoral process, big donors still make up a small portion of overall contributions. 
  3. This Supreme Court case has some limitations. For one, it applies to federal candidates only. How campaign contributions will be limited for state and local candidates are done on a state-by-state level. Also, this ruling only affects aggregate limits, which addresses the total amount one can give to all candidates. The base limit, which is the maximum one can give to a single candidate, was not addressed in this ruling, which means that the base limits under campaign finance law still apply. Having base limits makes more sense than aggregate limits. After all, if giving money to eighteen federal campaigns at the base limit is permissible and doesn't affect levels of corruption, why not permit the nineteenth [or any number of campaigns]? Furthermore, this ruling would affect less than 600 donors. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission had more of an impact on campaign finance law than this week's ruling did, but that won't stop pundits from talking about whether this is the "beginning of the end of campaign finance reform."
  4. Are we on a slippery slope to unraveling campaign finance law? Maybe, maybe not. Between this ruling and the Citizens United ruling, there is arguably a trend in deregulation. However, that is like saying that McDonald v. Chicago and District of Columbia v. Heller will engender the complete deregulation of guns. Let's recognize the hyperbole for the logical fallacy it is.
  5. In a way, this is actually more problematic for big donors because now, big donors cannot use the excuse of "I've reached my limit under federal law." It's a distinct possibility that donors can get fed up and actually donate less. 
  6. If the Left is concerned about corruption through increased corruption, how about making Big Government less aggrandized? If there are less bureaucratic agencies and/or those agencies have less power and influence, there would be less incentive for campaign contributors to manipulate the political process. Ergo, if one cares about corruption, let's scale back the size of government.

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