Attorneys representing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will make oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court this week to scrap another set of limits on how much individuals can donate to political campaigns.
It is a case that could have serious ramifications on U.S. elections and possibly increase the amount of money spent on federal races in a way the controversial Citizens United decision did.
Justices will hear the McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission case on Oct. 8, which was brought by an Alabama donor who is challenging how much a person can donate to federal candidates, political parties and political action committees.
Under federal law, individuals are allowed to give an aggregate amount of as much as $123,000 ($48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political parties/ political action committees) per election cycle. But McCutcheon's attorneys argue those regulations are unconstitutional and fetter a person's First Amendment rights.
That is a view also held by McConnell, who filed an amicus brief joining McCutcheon's case saying contributions are the most effective form of political involvement.
From McConnell's brief:
“Not all persons have the name recognition of a George Clooney, a Bruce Springsteen, or a Donald Trump, from whom a public endorsement or appearance would possibly carry weight. Nor do all people have the free time, skills, or proximity to be effective campaign volunteers. Thus, for many if not most persons, a contribution of money is by far the most effective means of supporting a preferred candidate. And, just as intensity of support can be divined by the number of volunteer hours spent, for many if not most contributors the intensity of support is directly related to the size of the check.”
It was a decade ago when McConnell made the money equals speech argument and opposed campaign finance reform as the lead plaintiff in a Supreme Court cases against the McCain-Feingold law.
Those who support restrictions on giving argue the GOP leader is trying to further turn elections into auctions by giving wealthier Americans an unfair advantage.
“Our democracy doesn’t work well when it’s just a debate between rich people,” says David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Action Campaign Fund. “Regular people and regular Kentuckians need to have their voices heard in politics. But if we have a system where large money drives the elections and drives public policy that means the rest of us get left out.”
Donnelly's group is running TV ads in Kentucky comparing McConnell's position on unfettered donations to Godzilla trampling entire cities.
The Roberts Court has chipped away at restrictions on campaign contributions and reformers are worried the conservative justices will open the floodgates further.
But former FEC Chairman Michael Toner tells WFPL the challenge in the McCutheon case is simply part of effort to broaden the rights of individuals to be more active in U.S. elections by fully supporting candidates and committees of their choosing.
“(B)oth political contributions and expenditures are core political speech protected by the First Amendment,” he says. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that governmental efforts to level the playing field among contributors and to equalize campaign resources between candidates are not constitutionally permissible bases for campaign finance restrictions.”
Toner adds the McCutheon case isn't about removing all contribution restrictions, but rather how much can given in total during an election cycle.
“It's also important to note that the McCuthceon case only involved personal, non-corporate contributions that are disclosed to the Federal Election Commission—so-called hard dollar funds,” Toner says. “McCutheory does not concern corporate and labor union contributions and other contributions that are not disclose to the public.”
Still, the underpinnings of McConnell's legal argument asks the high court to revisit political contribution caps that could allow an unlimited amount to be given to candidates much in the same way super PACs are allowed to collect.
Those regulations put a cap on giving at $2,600 per candidate in their primary and general elections.
The single largest check written to a super PAC in last year's election was $5 million, according to campaign finance records. And the heftiest total contribution from a single donor to a super PAC during a certain period was $20.5 million.
For reformers of the system, McConnell's involvement in the case represents a possible deluge of cash into American elections.
“If the justices side with McConnell they will literally be setting up a constitutional right for bribery, Donnelly says. “That’s what it boils down to. Large and unlimited campaign contributions directly to the people that we are supposed to be electing to serve for us. But those people will be serving their cash constituents and not all of their constituents.”