After unleashing unlimited donations to independent committees with its Citizens United decision in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday will consider the next step toward full deregulation of campaign spending.
Although we aren't holding out hope, the justices need to leave in place aggregate contribution limits that apply to donors giving to federal candidates, national parties and political action committees.
Federal courts repeatedly have upheld reasonable donation limits, rightly recognizing the corrosive and corrupting influence of huge donations to individual candidates. Now, Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy Republican donor from Alabama, and the Republican National Committee are challenging aggregate caps on contributions to candidates and committees.
Caps are fundamental to the Federal Election Campaign Act, approved after the scandalous 1972 presidential election that led to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation.
McCutcheon hopes to curtail a 1976 Supreme Court decision upholding the federal limits on the grounds that government could limit the size of donations directly to candidates to prevent "corruption or its appearance."
As it stands, one person can give $2,500 per election to a federal candidate, $30,800 per year to national party committees and $5,000 per year to other federal committees. But there's also an aggregate cap of $123,000 per election cycle.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Rep. David Price, D-NC., submitted a brief that walked through the math: Absent the limits, one donor in a two-year cycle could give $2.4 million to candidates for the House and Senate, plus $194,400 to the three main party committees, and $20,000 to each of 50 state party committees, for another $1 million. Donations would not end there. In 2012, there were 2,757 independent political action committees. Individuals could give millions more to those PACs.
A decision to abolish aggregate limits might not serve politicians well. Few moms who bake apple pies give million-dollar donations. Most big donors are moguls who expect a quo for their quid.
Voters might doubt the independence of any candidate who obtains million dollar donations -- provided the information is disseminated before election day. There would be disclosure of the seven-figure donations, which is important.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the Citizens United decision, which opened the way for obscene sums of money donated by billionaires and corporations to committees not directly tied to candidates. In the McCutcheon case, Kennedy has the opportunity to make clear the important distinction between spending on independent campaigns and hard money donations solicited by individual politicians.
The Supreme Court should not tip the balance of power by striking down a reasonable law approved in bipartisan fashion that seeks to curb corruption.