The morning after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC brings progressives a splitting headache. The 5-4 ruling along the usual conservative-liberal lines, while not unexpected, has broad implications. Like it or not—and assuredly, progressive do not like it—the era of effective limits on contributions to federal politicians is drawing to a close. Want to write a million-dollar check to support a candidate? Chances are that now, or someday soon, you can.
For four decades, since the campaign finance reforms of the 1970s, limits on big-dollar, direct gifts to politicians have been the beating heart of the progressive paradigm. Before McCutcheon, donors could give only $2,600 to an individual candidate in any one election cycle—and they could only give an aggregate of $48,600 to all campaigns. (Here’s the whole list of contribution limits.) InMcCutcheon, the court struck down the aggregate limit, reversing its own prior holding in the seminal 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo.
To be sure, the legal limit on contributions to individual candidates remains in place (for the time being; it will be challenged). But it will now be “child’s play,” as the Campaign Legal Center notes (PDF), “to transfer multiple contributions from a single donor between party and candidate committees for the purpose of directing all or part of the total amount to the donor’s preferred recipients.”
A calamity for the 1970s paradigm? Yes. A calamity for progressives? Maybe not. There is a way forward, a potential win for both freedom and political accountability, though it requires progressives to hold their nose and swallow hard: raise contribution limits. A lot. A whole lot. Like, allow contributions of up to $1 million for presidential campaigns and up to $200,000 and $50,000, respectively, for Senate and House campaigns. (In 2012, an average winning Senate campaign spent $10.4 million, and a winning House campaign spent $1.6 million, according to Vital Statistics on Congress.)At the same time, as part of the deal, close the wide gaps in today’s rules requiring the disclosure of donations.
Wait. Allow Senate candidates to hit up victims—sorry, donors—for $200,000 at a time? Legitimize contributions of a size that virtually guarantees special attention from office-holders? Why should progressives conceivably support that? Because the old means no longer serve the desired ends. As of now, the case for low contribution limits has all but evaporated—even if you believe, as I do, that the limits once made sense and that the Buckley court was correct in upholding them.
The Buckley rationale was that contribution limits prevent corruption, and the appearance of corruption, by keeping donations small enough to obviate pay-for-play and political racketeering. Politicians would raise modest amounts from multiple donors; fat cats would lose clout; the public would gain confidence that the system wasn’t hostage to plutocrats.
Over time, however, as electioneering costs soared, low contribution limits had the unintended effect of making money hard to raise. The need to raise large amounts in small sums is a reason (not the only one, of course) that politicians spend far too much time every day dialing for dollars.
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