A Supreme Court ruling Wednesday in the biggest campaign finance case since Citizens United has opened the door even wider for unlimited money in politics.
The Court, which ruled 5-4 in McCutcheon v. FEC, effectively eliminated overall limits on the amount individuals can donate to candidates. GOP donor and Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon joined with the Republican National Committee to challenge the limits as a violation of First Amendment rights.
Advocates for campaign finance reform decried the ruling. “That today’s decision uses the First Amendment as a justification makes a mockery of the Constitution,” J. Gerald Hebert, Campaign Legal Center Executive Director, said in a statement.
But to others, including major outside groups, the decision was another step forward in advancing political speech. “This is a great day for the First Amendment and a great day for political speech,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a statement.
The ruling itself doesn’t open the floodgates — at issue wasn’t the $2,600 limit on what a person can give to an individual federal candidate — but it did challenge the $123,000 cap on an individual’s overall contributions to federal candidates, parties, and committees.
It essentially picks up where Citizens United left off in 2010, a ruling that allowed individuals and entities to funnel unlimited amounts of cash through outside organizations, spawning the now ubiquitous super PAC.
In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that the Court’s Citizens United decision actually helped force its hand in this case:
The existing aggregate limits may in fact encourage the movement of money away from entities subject to disclosure. Because individuals’ direct contributions are limited, would-be donors may turn to other avenues for political speech. See Citizens United, supra, at 364. Individuals can, for example, contribute unlimited amounts to 501(c) organizations, which are not required to publicly disclose their donors. See 26 U. S. C. §6104(d)(3). Such organizations spent some $300 million on independent expenditures in the 2012 election cycle.
In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the decision “eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”
The ruling couldn’t have come at a better time for politicians running in the 2014 midterms: Wealthy donors will no longer be bound in the number of politicians and committees they can back.
To get a sense of how many donors may take advantage of the limitless aggregate contributions, you can examine how many gave the maximum amount in the 2012 cycle. Back then, 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, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Joint fundraising committees, or JFCs, could see a major shift, too. In 2012, 536 donors gave the maximum amount to the Obama Victory Fund, while 721 gave the maximum amount to the Romney Victory Fund.
Already, lawmakers on the Hill are looking for ways to increase transparency, given the ruling. Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine has introduced a bill requiring that all donations of $1,000 or more be reported within 48 hours. But it’s unclear how much of a chance any further reforms to campaign finance have in the current political environment.
House Speaker John Boehner lauded the ruling, saying it means “freedom of speech is being upheld.”
“Just remember, all this goes back to this bizarre McCain-Feingold bill that was passed that has distorted the political process in ways that no one who voted for it ever believed it,” Boehner said Tuesday. “Some of us understood what was going to happen. It’s pushing all this money outside the party structure into all these other various forms.”
But not everyone’s so on board. “There will be scandal,” Republican Sen. John McCain said after the decision. “There’s too much money washing around.”