Here’s the backstory.
To prevent corruption, federal campaign finance law sets limits on what individuals can give to candidates ($2,600 per primary or general election), political action committees, or PACs ($5,000 per year), and national political parties ($32,400 per year). It also sets an overall limit on what an individual donor can give altogether to all three, $123,200 over a two-year election cycle.
If a donor wants to spend more money to elect or defeat candidates, they can, but through supposedly independent groups called super PACs or so-called social welfare organizations.
An Alabama Republican donor, Shaun McCutcheon, and the Republican National Committee are challenging the constitutionality of the aggregate limit in a Supreme Court case called McCutcheon v. FEC. They are not challenging the other limits. In fact, McCutcheon says he supports them.
But this seemingly narrow case could have a dramatic impact. Instead of $123,200, an individual wealthy donor would have the ability to bundle as much as $3 million directly to candidates, PACs, and party committees all over the country.
Those who can give as much as $2,600 to a candidate are already an elite few. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, less than one-tenth of one percent of all Americans gave that much in 2012, and fewer than 2,000 individuals across the country “maxed out” to Republican and Democratic Party committees.
To state the obvious, whether we are allowed to give more than $123,200 toward politics—almost three times what a typical Kentucky family earns a year—is not a problem that many of us face. Most of us worry about the tuition payments for our kids or about our job going overseas, not if we can give more money to politicians.
In short, if the Supreme Court goes along with McCutcheon and the RNC, it would be further placing our elections in the hands of a few and making it even harder for the voices of everyday people to be heard in Washington.
So what does this have to do with Senator McConnell? Long fashioning himself the leading opponent of common sense limits on money in politics in Washington, McConnell filed a “friend of the court” brief in McCutcheon v FEC arguing that abolishing the aggregate limits wasn’t enough. McConnell thinks the John Roberts-led Court should go further by abolishing all limits whatsoever, so corporate CEOs can contribute as much money as they want to candidates — candidates like himself.
And on the Friday before Labor Day, the Roberts Court signaled it was open to his arguments by inviting McConnell—through his attorney—to make arguments before the Court on October 8 alongside Mr. McCutcheon’s lawyers.
McConnell’s former aides have already established a super PAC that can raise unlimited contributions to spend criticizing his opponents or promoting his candidacy. The only limit on their fundraising is that McConnell himself can’t raise those large contributions. (His Democratic opponent is also likely to get super PAC help.)
Now McConnell wants to be able to solicit that money himself. He wants that CEO (and Wall Street investors and Big Oil tycoons) to sit down with him to discuss their concerns and be able to legally write a $1 million check and hand it to him. On the spot.
That’s crazy. It’s a recipe for blatant corruption. It’s government on the auction block.
It’s also highly unpopular. In a national survey last November for my organization, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that Americans choose limits on contributions over unlimited contributions by an eight to one margin.
Perhaps that’s why McConnell, who usually trumpets out every minor achievement, is uncharacteristically mum when given the honor to present his arguments in front of the highest court in the land. We haven’t seen a single press release, or even a tweet, about it from his campaign or Senate office. He knows Kentuckians want elections of, by, and for the people, not a wealthy few.
Donnelly is the executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund, a national nonpartisan organization dedicated to passing comprehensive change in America’s campaign finance laws.