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Supreme Court Hears Case That Could 'Empower Super-Rich to Buy Elections'

Oral arguments heard in case that could have biggest impact on elections since Citizens United

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Oral arguments in a case some have dubbed "the next Citizens United" were heard on Tuesday at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Outside the U.S. Supreme Court today. (Photo: Public Citizen/cc/flickr)The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, challenges the limits on contributions an individual can make to federal campaigns, and that opponents say could give even more power to the super-rich to corrupt democracy.

In a primer on the case, the Center for Responsive Politics explains:

Many people are familiar with limits on how much individuals can give to a campaign; in the 2014 cycle, gifts are capped at $2,600 per candidate per race ($5,200 including both the primary and general election). In addition, they can give up to $5,000 per year to a PAC.

However, there is also an overall limit: No individual can give more than $123,200 in a two-year cycle. Of that amount, only $48,600 can be given to candidates and only $74,600 can be given to PACs. This means that a donor can only give the maximum allowable donation to nine candidates and seven PACs in the 2014 election cycle.

Alabama businessman and Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon, joined by the Republican National Committee, assert in the case that the aggregate caps infringe on free speech.

"A single individual could spend as much as $3.6 million on a single election."
-Common Cause
The Washington Post adds this background:

At the heart of the current case is the framework created by the court’s seminal 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which upheld limits on campaign contributions that Congress put in place two years earlier in response to the Watergate scandal. That ruling drew a distinction between contributions, which the court said could be limited to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption, and expenditures, which the court determined were a form of direct personal expression.

Lyle Denniston explains at SCOTUSblog that

As the case has developed since the Court took it on, it has enhanced the prospects for a close new look at the constitutional distinction drawn between campaign contributions and spending.  If that distinction is erased, and the First Amendment shields donors as much as it does spenders, the contribution side of campaigns for the presidency and for members of Congress may become as wide open as the spending side has been in the wake of the Citizens United decision in January 2010.

“If the Court sides with the plaintiff in McCutcheon v. FEC and overturns aggregate contribution limits, a single individual could spend as much as $3.6 million on a single election, enough to buy the attention of the president and every single member of Congress,” warned citizen advocacy group Common Cause.

"The potential for corruption—indeed its inevitability— if those limits are removed is clear and present and more than sufficient to justify keeping them in place," the group added.

Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen, echoed the warning, saying that "If the court decides to strike down limits on what an individual can give directly to candidates, parties and PACs, the real-world impact is plain enough. A few hundred people will be empowered to spend millions to buy elections."

If the caps are struck down, Weissman says "the entire political system will shift still more to favor the super-rich." Already, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) noted on Tuesday, “We are living in a society where a handful of people with incredible sums of money like the Koch brothers and others are undermining what this democracy is supposed to be about.”

Weissman said that if the caps are struck down, "We will see a rise in corruption both as the public understands the term – meaning the entire political system will shift still more to favor the super-rich – and as the Supreme Court defines it – meaning quid pro quo corruption."

News agencies are reporting that the Court "appeared closely divided on Tuesday" in the case, and McClatchy reported that "The tenor of the hour-long oral argument suggested that an eventual 5-4 decision could result that strikes down the aggregate limits."

If that happens, caution Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap and Keyan Bliss of the Move to Amend Coalition, "the political voice of ordinary Americans will be swept away and with it policies that benefit the public interest."  In so doing, they write, "it could spark a national revolution."

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