Multiplying Risks by Twenty-Four: Absurd Implications of a Bad McCutcheon Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court could soon issue its decision in Shaun McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case that challenges aggregate contribution limits to federal candidates, political parties, and political action committees. Several outcomes are possible, ranging from a complete elimination of said limits to a total preservation of those limits.

However, there is a third (perhaps more likely) middle-ground scenario in which the Supreme Court maintains aggregate limits on contributions to political parties and PACs, but eliminates them for contributions to candidates. In the aftermath such a ruling, a wealthy donor could still effectively contribute more than 24 times the legal limit to political parties, according to a new report by Public Citizen.

Now, imagine a world in which well-reasoned, appropriate limits established by the government were overlooked by individuals and the government itself, allowing people and businesses to exceed reasonable limits by 24 times the legal threshold.

  • Currently, a driver can legally drive with a blood alcohol level under 0.08. Imagine if a police officer looked the other way if a driver registered a 1.94 reading, 24 times greater in this case would mean the person’s blood is nearly two percent alcohol, which would almost certainly be fatal.
  • The speed limits on most major highways fluctuate between 60 and 80 miles per hour. What if drivers were able to drive 1,440 miles per hour, or 24 times the posted limit, without the government intervening? Even twice the legal speed limit would pose significant danger to the driver and other motorists.
  • Nearly every elevator has a weight limit posted inside. What would happen if an elevator with a 6,000 pound weight limit was crammed full of 144,000 pounds worth of people and material? A disaster, I’m sure.
  • In 2012, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported spending more than $35 million on the 2012 elections. But what if it really spent more than $840 million (24 times the $35 million it reported) but government regulators didn’t require the Chamber to report the extra $805 million?
  • Currently, poultry inspectors are required to inspect 140 chickens per minute in processing plants. If the USDA were to allow chickens to pass by inspectors 24 times faster, the inspector would be responsible for inspecting 3,360 chickens per minute, or 56 per second. Literally, in the blink of an eye, about 5 chickens could move by an inspector, creating the recipe for a food safety disaster. (A recent proposal by the USDA would increase line speeds to 175 chickens per minute, posing a very real threat to public health and safety.)
  • The Food and Drug Administration closely and necessarily regulates pharmaceutical drug dosages to protect patient safety. But if drug companies were permitted to increase the doses by two or three times, let alone 24 times, without any interference from the FDA, there would be a patient safety crisis.

The government sets reasonable limits on activity that it believes is dangerous or unsafe, such as  chemicals, power plant emissions, and pharmaceuticals. But the Supreme Court could decide McCutcheon in a way that would allow something that is just as damaging to the health of our democracy – namely, money – to flow into our system in amounts vastly in excess of what has been previously been considered reasonable.

The point is that limits often exist for very real and very sensible reasons. The limit on aggregate contributions to candidates, political parties, and PACs exists to prevent corruption. Nearly any ruling in McCutcheon that loosens those restrictions will only increase the likelihood of a quid pro quo arrangement between wealthy donors and elected officials.

Adam Crowther is a researcher for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.