The Supreme Court has ruled on campaign money yet again.
After paving the way for super PACs with its Citizens United decision in 2010, the Roberts court has struck down the Federal Election Commission’s aggregate limit on campaign contributions. Before today, individuals couldn’t give more than $123,000 for a two-year election cycle to candidates, parties and PACs combined. The limit did not include other kinds of outside groups, like super PACs or 501(c)4 groups.
It did, however, leave in place the specific donation caps: As before today, donors can only give $5,200 to a single campaign over an election cycle ($2,600 for the primary and another $2,600 for the general election) and they can only give $32,400 to each national party committee like the Republican National Committee (RNC) or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
What the ruling means is this: Donors can now spread their money around to more candidates. Republican megadonors, for instance, could potentially give $5,200 to every single Republican House and Senate candidate in the country, on top of the money they’ve given to the Republican Party and any GOP super PACs.
Republicans like this ruling (the RNC praised it as “a vindication for all those who support robust, transparent political discourse”) and Democrats don’t (Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., himself a renowned fundraiser for his party, called it “another step on the road to ruination”).
So who are the winners and losers of this ruling?
Down-ballot candidates who will get more $5,200 checks from megadonors. Given that Republicans tend to do better at raising outside money from big-time donors, we can probably step out on a limb and narrow this beneficiary to down-ballot Republican candidates. But we’ll have to wait and see how that pans out. All congressional candidates will now have access to more money from big donors willing to exceed the limits and spread their money around.
People with lots of money who don’t care about giving it to losing candidates. Political donors tend to give their money to party committees and a handful of House and Senate candidates whose interests align with theirs. Now, anyone who wants to go beyond that can freely do so. The only problem: A lot of candidates aren’t all that good, despite how much money they get. If party elites can now broaden their lists of candidates toward whom they steer contributions from wealthy donors, that broadened list will inevitably include some candidates who will lose anyway. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, about 650 people brushed up against the aggregate spending limit last election cycle.
Liberal campaign-finance reformists who had low expectations and wanted to keep the individual-candidate limits. Conservatives dislike contribution limits in general, viewing them as an unjust restriction on political speech. And insofar as anyone on the left worried that the Supreme Court would look past the aggregate contribution limits and dismantle the limits on what each campaign can receive from each donor, those who held such fears should breathe a sigh of relief.
Bundlers: It’s a bundler boom! There’s (even more) gold in them thar private fundraisers! It’s bundlin’ time! The practice of bundling – collecting contributions from multiple donors and packaging them for a specific candidates – could take on new connotations, as earmarked contributions will be easier to collect for multiple candidates. It’s a slightly different concept of bundling, but one that could take off, depending on the interest of big-time donors at private fundraisers to spread their donations around to multiple candidates.
Money = speech advocates. The legal rationale for contribution limits is that they prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption: by limiting how much a donor can give, that reasoning goes, the law prevents a quid pro quo relationship between a candidate and a donor. (That’s why it’s sometimes ridiculous to point at individual contributions as evidence of a politician’s beholdenness to an individual or group. After all, what does $5,200 really get you? An independent expenditure of millions of dollars in uncoordinated TV ads, it would seem, could generate that relationship much more easily.) Opponents of political-money restrictions see things differently. They maintain that donating to a candidate or party amounts to political speech, and that it’s an overreach for government to prevent people from using their wallets to participate in the political process. By striking down aggregate limits, and ruling that they’re not necessary to fight corruption, the Supreme Court gave that side an ideological boost.
Mitch McConnell (sort of), and anyone who wanted the court to do away with limits writ large. Make no mistake, this ruling was a victory for entities like the Cato Institute and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who voiced support for the plaintiff and urged the court to do away with aggregate limits. But insofar as any of them wanted the court to go further and examine the basic concept of limits writ large – and McConnell’s amicus brief in the case argue that limits “restrict the rights of speech and association” – those people saw a victory that could have been a bigger victory.
Liberal campaign-finance reformists who see any weakening of rules as a degradation of democracy and an opening for corruption. In other words, the Democratic Party, which (despite its embrace of outside money with groups like the super PAC Priorities USA and the 501(c)4 group Organizing for Action) has staked its claim on fighting the purported shadiness of money in politics. Hence the comments from Schumer, and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who said the Supreme Court ruled “on the side of moneyed interests.” Liberal campaign-finance reformers have waged an uphill battle to get the FEC and the IRS to enforce disclosure rules, more clearly define “political activity,” and generally combat the often seemingly unfettered nature of political spending. Just as it gave money-is-speech advocates an ideological boost, this delivered a setback to campaign-finance reformers on the left.
Megadonors. Imagine you’re a megadonor. The super PACs aligned with every presidential candidate of your chosen party have been hounding you for million-dollar checks. You’ve already maxed out to the party committees, and you feel you’ve done your civic duty. Now, along comes a big-time party fundraiser who’s suddenly asking you to give $5,200 to about 50 House candidates, some of whom are running for office a thousand miles away from you. It’s almost enough to make you wish for a lower tax bracket.