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Thomas Rudolph, expert on campaign finance
On April 2 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on how much an individual can contribute in total to federal candidates, parties and political action committees, in its decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. It’s the court’s first significant campaign finance ruling since Citizens United v. FEC in 2010, which removed restrictions on independent political spending by corporations and labor unions. University of Illinois political scientist Thomas Rudolph has studied the public attitudes and politics surrounding campaign finance and co-wrote a book on the subject. He also is a co-author of a book due out this fall titled “Why Washington Won’t Work.” He discussed the Supreme Court decisions and their effect with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
So who wins and loses in this latest decision?
Prior to the McCutcheon decision, individuals were restricted by two different types of contribution limits. First, they were restricted in terms of how much money they could give to a single candidate, party committee or political action committee (PAC) in an election. Second, they were restricted in terms of how much money they could give to all candidates, party committees or PACs combined. McCutcheon basically left the first type of restrictions intact but struck down the combined contribution limits.
The McCutcheon decision has the potential to create clear winners and losers in the world of campaign finance. Perhaps the most obvious winners are wealthy donors. In the pre-McCutcheon world, wealthy donors were only allowed to contribute a combined total of $48,600 to all federal candidates. In other words, a donor could only give the maximum allowable contribution of $5,200 per election cycle to nine candidates. With McCutcheon’s removal of the combined contribution limit, the same donor may now give the maximum allowable contribution to an unlimited number of candidates.
Similarly, donors had been allowed to contribute a combined total of only $74,600 per year to all PACs and party committees. With that financial ceiling now shattered, donors may give the maximum allowable contributions of $5,000 per PAC and $32,400 per national party committee to an unlimited number of PACs and party committees.
A second clear winner is party committees at both the national and state levels. Each national party committee can now be a potential recipient of $32,400 from a wealthy donor. This means that national party committees – currently three for each party – will no longer have to compete with each other for scarce resources. State and local party organizations will also benefit because each of them can now be a potential recipient of the maximum allowable contribution of $10,000 per state party committee.
Who loses as a result of the McCutcheon decision? The most obvious answer is campaign finance reformers and those who seek to limit the influence of monied interests in politics. With aggregate contribution limits lifted, the amount of money that will change hands in American elections will only increase.
A second potential loser is nonestablishment candidates within both the Republican and Democratic parties. The McCutcheon decision promises to enhance the fundraising prowess of party committees. These party committees will have a greater ability to selectively give or withhold party money to candidates as a means of enforcing party discipline.
We’ve had two national elections since the Citizens United decision. What can we say now about its effect?
One immediate effect has been the tremendous growth in independent expenditures by outside groups. The amount of independent expenditures by outside groups during the 2012 election was more than quadruple that of the 2008 elections.
Citizens United has indirectly resulted in less disclosure of campaign contributions and, arguably, less accountability. The decision has enabled wealthy donors to contribute unlimited amounts of money to outside groups above and beyond what they are allowed to give to candidates and parties.
Because these outside groups are not subject to the same disclosure regulations as candidates and parties, the public may have less information about the identity of big contributors. To win re-election, candidates and parties must ultimately be responsive to their constituents. Outside groups have no such incentive or obligation. As a result, it is more difficult for citizens to hold them accountable for their political actions.
Can we expect more, or less, significant effects in the wake of McCutcheon? Is there any part of McCutcheon that might reverse recent trends?
In the short term, the McCutcheon decision is likely to accelerate the amount of money spent on campaigns because individuals may now contribute more money to candidates and parties. However, McCutcheon actually has the potential to reverse some recent trends by increasing disclosure and accountability in elections.
If some donors respond to the court’s ruling by redirecting their contributions from outside groups to candidates and parties, both of whom must comply with federal disclosure regulations, then the public may have greater awareness of who is trying to influence the political process. By potentially empowering candidates and parties at the expense of outside groups, the ruling may also increase electoral accountability.
Even without the direction of the court’s decisions in this area, it’s easy to be skeptical about how much the influence of money in politics can be curtailed through legislation. As the saying goes, “money, like water, will always find an outlet.” So what should be our bottom-line concern as voters?
It is difficult to imagine a set of campaign finance regulations that would succeed in limiting the influence of money in politics. As a result, citizens’ bottom-line concern probably needs to be greater disclosure. If legislators can’t effectively restrict the amount of money that flows into politics, citizens must at least be able to easily track who is contributing to whom so that they can make informed judgments about whether such contributions are buying undue influence. Without such awareness, it is very difficult to hold candidates and parties accountable for their actions.
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