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Jan. 7, 2014

Even a Partial Elimination of Contribution Limits in U.S. Supreme Court’s McCutcheon’s Decision Could Greatly Increase Wealthy Donors’ Ability to Corrupt Officeholders

Public Citizen Report: Decision Could Allow Individuals to Funnel Millions of Dollars to Fundraising Committees

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even if the U.S. Supreme Court only partially strikes down caps on aggregate campaign contributions when it rules in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the decision could still open the door to candidates and party officials soliciting individual donors for checks of more than $2.5 million and would increase the likelihood of corruption, Public Citizen concludes in the first of a two-part series on the possible implications of the case.

The report, “Beware of a Naive Perspective: A Prebuttal to Possible U.S. Supreme Court Rulings in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission,” finds that a partial or complete elimination of aggregate contribution limits would enable joint fundraising committees to take on a vastly expanded role because they would be able to receive significantly larger contributions than at present.

“The way political candidates and parties raise money could be fundamentally reshaped by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon,” said Adam Crowther, researcher with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and co-author of the report. “It would be naive to believe that those party leaders or candidates that benefit from money funneled through joint fundraising committees would not be more likely to provide special favors to those donors.”

In McCutcheon, GOP donor Shawn McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee are challenging limits on the cumulative total of contributions a person may make to candidates, political parties and political action committees (PACs). The case does not challenge limits on contributions to individual entities, such as the cap of $2,600 a person may give to each candidate per election.

Under current law, individuals can donate as much as $123,200 per election cycle to regulated federal political committees, with a $48,600 cap on total contributions to candidates and a $74,600 cap on total contributions to PACs and political parties. The challengers in McCutcheon attack the constitutionality of each of these three aggregate limits.

The court could rule in several ways:

1) It could maintain the existing limits on aggregate contributions;
2) It could eliminate all aggregate limits, thereby abolishing the $123,200 biennial limit, as well as the separate sub-limits for candidates and political and party committees; or
3) The court could preserve some aggregate limits but eliminate others.

Based on Chief Justice John Roberts’ comments during oral arguments, some have speculated the court might settle on a hybrid approach of eliminating aggregate contribution limits on candidates but maintaining limits for parties and PACs. But even partially repealing the caps could allow a small group of donors to unduly influence elected officials and party leaders, Public Citizen’s report concludes.

The analysis finds that if the court were to put in place this hybrid option, donors could still write a single check of more than $2.5 million to a joint fundraising committee. A complete elimination of aggregate limits would permit a single donor to write a $5.9 million check to a fundraising committee controlled by an elected official or party leader.

“It is not engaging in ‘wild speculation,’ as some on the court have suggested, to recognize how the campaign system might be abused in the event of a court decision striking down aggregate contribution limits, in whole or part. It’s a matter of facing reality,” said Public Citizen President Robert Weissman. “In Citizens United, the court’s theory that outside spending groups would be ‘independent’ of the candidates was almost immediately disproven when it was tested in the real world. We hope the court does not succumb to such narrow thinking again.”

Part 2 of the series, to be published next week, will illustrate that striking down the caps on contributions to candidates could erode the integrity of caps on donations to parties even if the court officially left the party limits in place.

See full report.

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