A case that's under consideration by the Supreme Court could lay the groundwork for seismic-level shifts in the way money intersects with politics.
Under question is whether the aggregate cap on the amount an individual can donate to candidates, parties, and PACs is constitutional. Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee brought the suit, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which was argued before the Court Oct. 8. McCutcheon's position is that the cap violates his First Amendment rights.
The case does not challenge the $2,600 limit on an individual contribution to a federal candidate. Rather, what is at play is the total that an individual can contribute to federal candidates, parties, and committees. The current cap of $123,200 includes a $48,600 limit on contributions to all candidates and $74,600 to PACs and parties. The aggregate cap is indexed for inflation in odd-number years.
One way to see how many donors could take advantage of higher or no aggregate caps is by examining how many gave the maximum amount in the 2012 cycle. The Center for Responsive Politics found that 653 individuals donated the maximum amount to the Democratic Party, while 1,062 gave the maximum amount to the GOP. And 591 donors gave the maximum amount to federal candidates.
Despite the fact that pro-Romney-leaning super PACs outspent pro-Obama ones in 2012, Democrats still won the election. "Anytime you make it easier for more big money to come in, we're going to be at a disadvantage," a national Democratic consultant said. "Does that mean the end of the world for us? No."
Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, has said "the real threat" is the impact the Court's decision could have on joint fundraising committees, or JFCs. In 2012, 536 donors gave the maximum amount to the Obama Victory Fund, while 721 gave the maximum amount to the Romney Victory Fund.
"Without those limits, each political party could solicit contributions to JFCs of over $1 million per cycle to federal and state party committees alone, and $3.5 million if party candidates for the House and Senate are included in the joint fundraising effort," Potter said at a National Press Club event in October.
Few places allow unlimited contributions. Four states permit this in their races: Missouri, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia. Meanwhile, 39 states limit contributions to candidates from individuals, political parties, PACs, corporations, and unions.
While Citizens United opened the door to unlimited money in politics, it forced the funds to be funneled through outside, independent groups. It's against the law for those groups to coordinate officially with campaigns. But as it stands now, unlimited money is already in the game in politics. If donations went directly to parties and candidates, those candidates would have more control over how this money is spent within a larger campaign strategy.
"The dirty little secret about all this is, money always finds a way to sneak through the cracks," the Democratic consultant said.
As for the benefit that donors would get from giving directly to candidates or campaigns, some are skeptical that big donors will back off donating to outside groups so long as individual contributions are still limited.
"Right now, I don't see the people giving these massive checks ... doing it for lumps of meat of legislation," said a GOP consultant. "It's because you want to be a big dog."
Paul Sherman, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian firm, predicted the Court will strike down aggregate limits, but added that the decision's impact will depend on how exactly the justices do that. He expects that if the aggregate cap gets lifted or abolished, it would lay the groundwork for a challenge on individual federal contributions. "And that would be a big change."
"One possible side effect of ruling in favor of the plaintiffs is that it could shift money back toward political parties and political candidates, and that in turn could improve the tone of the political debate," Sherman noted.
"Party committees will like this more, particularly on the Republican side," said the Democratic consultant. "It actually makes outside groups like [American] Crossroads a tiny bit less relevant."
But some in the fundraising world point out that, at least on the congressional level, playing big in the primaries is where it counts — and it's unclear how large of an effect the Supreme Court case would have for those situations, where official party committees don't play as major a role.
In the end, lifting the aggregate cap may just make it easier for party committees to raise cash they would have gotten anyway. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus "may have to do an eighth as many chicken dinners," the GOP consultant said.