Supreme Court Gives McConnell Assist in War on Outside Groups

The Court didn’t rule as broadly on contribution limits as McConnell wanted, but McCutcheon could help political parties compete against super PACs.

National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
April 2, 2014, 8:15 a.m.

The Su­preme Court ruled today that wealthy donors can con­trib­ute to as many polit­ic­al can­did­ates, com­mit­tees, and parties as they de­sire, and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, long an op­pon­ent of cam­paign fin­ance re­stric­tions and a sup­port­er of the Court’s Cit­izens United de­cision, is cel­eb­rat­ing.

The Court did not rule as broadly as Mc­Con­nell had hoped in the Mc­Cutcheon v. Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion case, which was de­cided Wed­nes­day, but its de­cision could help him in his battle against the shad­owy out­side groups that op­pose his reelec­tion and that of sev­er­al of his col­leagues.

The Court ruled Wed­nes­day in a 5-4 de­cision that the over­all lim­its on how much an in­di­vidu­al can con­trib­ute to polit­ic­al can­did­ates and com­mit­tees in a giv­en elec­tion cycle ($48,600 to can­did­ates and $74,600 to polit­ic­al com­mit­tees) vi­ol­ate the First Amend­ment.

Mc­Con­nell filed an amicus brief in the case last year ur­ging the Court to take an even broad­er view and elim­in­ate cam­paign fin­ance con­tri­bu­tion lim­its al­to­geth­er. The Court even gran­ted his at­tor­ney the op­por­tun­ity to speak dur­ing or­al ar­gu­ments, which took place in Oc­to­ber. Mc­Con­nell and his law­yer ar­gued in the brief that laws lim­it­ing cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions “re­strict the rights of speech and as­so­ci­ation of both the con­trib­ut­or and the re­cip­i­ent of the con­tri­bu­tion.”

As ex­pec­ted, the Court took a much nar­row­er view than Mc­Con­nell had hoped.

Im­port­antly for Mc­Con­nell, however, the de­cision could put at least a little more power back in­to the hands of of­fi­cial party or­gan­iz­a­tions and can­did­ates. Mc­Con­nell has made it his goal this cycle to cripple med­dling out­side groups such as the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, groups that have frus­trated parties and can­did­ates for, of­ten will­ingly, go­ing off-mes­sage. The Mc­Cutcheon de­cision would al­low wealthy in­di­vidu­als, who might oth­er­wise give big to su­per PACs after hit­ting the over­all con­tri­bu­tion lim­it for, say, the 2014 cycle, to donate those funds to those who are ac­tu­ally run­ning cam­paigns on the ground. Polit­ic­al parties and can­did­ates, ad­voc­ates ar­gue, know best. Tellingly, ap­pel­lant Shaun Mc­Cutcheon was joined in the case by the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee.

Demo­crat­ic party groups also noted that the de­cision would be help­ful, al­though the party typ­ic­ally fa­vors con­tri­bu­tion lim­its. “It is a win for na­tion­al party com­mit­tees, and na­tion­al party com­mit­tees that raise sig­ni­fic­antly more than their coun­ter­parts (we’ve out­raised the NR­SC by $20m to date) stand to do bet­ter. In ad­di­tion, this will greatly en­hance our abil­ity to raise re­sources to sup­port our voter con­tact and field pro­gram - the Ban­nock Street Pro­ject — in states across the coun­try,” Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al cam­paign com­mit­tee spokes­man Matt Canter said.

Mc­Con­nell praised the de­cision on Wed­nes­day. “The Su­preme Court has once again re­minded Con­gress that Amer­ic­ans have a con­sti­tu­tion­al First Amend­ment right to speak and as­so­ci­ate with polit­ic­al can­did­ates and parties of their choice. In Shaun Mc­Cutcheon v. Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, the Court did not strike down in­di­vidu­al con­tri­bu­tion lim­its to can­did­ates, polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tees, or parties. But the Court did re­cog­nize that it is the right of the in­di­vidu­al, and not the prerog­at­ive of Con­gress, to de­term­ine how many can­did­ates and parties to sup­port,” he said in a state­ment.

“Let me be clear for all those who would cri­ti­cize the de­cision: It does not per­mit one more dime to be giv­en to an in­di­vidu­al can­did­ate or a party — it just re­spects the con­sti­tu­tion­al rights of in­di­vidu­als to de­cide how many to sup­port,” Mc­Con­nell ad­ded.

But cam­paign fin­ance re­form ad­voc­ates worry that in the long run, the Mc­Cutcheon de­cision will have es­sen­tially the same ef­fect as open­ing up con­tri­bu­tion lim­its en­tirely. While it is true that today’s de­cision in Mc­Cutcheon does not give con­trib­ut­ors the right to donate more to an in­di­vidu­al can­did­ate or com­mit­tee, it does al­low in­di­vidu­al donors to give money to as many com­mit­tees and parties sup­port­ing a single can­did­ate as they de­sire.

As Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Irvine) law pro­fess­or Richard L. Hansen noted in Slate last year, in­di­vidu­als can now make massive con­tri­bu­tions to joint fun­drais­ing com­mit­tees be­ne­fit­ing a single can­did­ate, with, say, Mc­Con­nell re­ceiv­ing the max­im­um $5,200 dona­tion dir­ectly, while the re­mainder is farmed out to loc­al and na­tion­al parties and oth­er com­mit­tees run­ning ad­vert­ising on his be­half.

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