McCutcheon v. FEC: Your Guide to the Biggest Campaign Finance Case Since Citizens United


On October 8, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in one of the most significant cases regarding campaign finance in recent memory: McCutcheon v. FEC. The case calls into question freedom of speech and the ability to spend money on political sponsorships, but it also entails a larger examination of the motives behind campaign spending, fundraising, and donating. Contributions may not be explicitly designed to influence a politician’s decisions, but it seems common sense that they would do so. There’s a reason why no member of the Republican Party would dare support a gun-control bill, just as no self-respecting Democrat would seriously threaten the organizing rights of labor unions. The numbers would indicate that campaign finance laws are simply becoming redundant or procedural, lacking the teeth needed to seriously limit money’s influence in political decision-making. 

Political mechanisms today have undergone significant transformations with the advent of different media sources, platforms, and organizations. Particularly while campaigning, candidates formulate complex strategies based off media time and exposure, all of which has come to cost a significant sum of money. Campaigning extends beyond simply news media, however, and the overall cost of running a successful (or unsuccessful) campaign has increased dramatically. In 1986, a successful campaign for a seat in the House of Representatives cost less than $400,000. Today, it takes, on average, over $1.5 million to win the same election. The Senate and the presidency have shown similar increases over the past 25 years. 

The money raised, however, falls under the umbrella of free speech — donating money to your favorite candidate is another way of showing your support, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Buckley v. Valeo (1976). The court argued that limits on spending are only permissible when the donation clearly corresponds with a political decision and when it reaches a certain monetary amount. The case the court will hear on Tuesday, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, is a conflict over the idea of limiting campaign donations. In a larger sense, it might suggest a logical conundrum for the court: If, as Buckley suggested, a limit on donations provided a “marginal” restriction on speech, then at what value does the limit become more than a “marginal” restriction? Sure, the court ruled that a $25,000 aggregate limit was legal, but what about a limit of $25,001? In other words, previous cases offer a good deal of precedent and principle, but provide little specificity as to just how much a campaign donation has to be in order to be unconstitutional.

The case on Tuesday will put this problem before the court. Alabama resident Shaun McCutcheon wanted to donate more than the biennial, or two-year, limit on spending to a candidate, and he along with a team of lawyers and supporters from the Republican National Committee decided to challenge the limits as a infringement of his freedom to donate money as he wishes.

Naturally, conservatives will identify with Mr. McCutcheon’s desire to spend money as he wishes. After all, limiting an individual’s ability to spend his or her own earnings seems a bit counter-capitalist. However, it's equally important to consider the negative effects of giving anyone — or any corporation or special-interest group — the unfettered ability to donate funds to political campaigns. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) spoke about the case last week, suggesting the court’s further progression down the road of decisions like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission would continue “neutering Congress’ ability to limit the influence of money in politics.”

Campaigns, even those for individuals like Ms. Warren, cost money. The logistical expenses alone to remain competitive in a race are baffling. Nonetheless, it seems as though the battle between Republicans and Democrats (and their respective donor groups) has become a proxy battle for the question of how much large donors should be able to enhance the attractiveness of a politician’s campaign. The question becomes less about how spending limits will affect an election, and more about whether spending should influence an election at all. Voters should be casting ballots for the individual whose ideas resonate most with their interests, not the candidate who appears in more campaign ads financed by money from a private interest group.

In 1952, a female supporter of Adlai Stevenson in the presidential election told the candidate, “Governor, every thinking person will be voting for you.” Stevenson wryly responded, “Madam, that is not enough. I need a majority.” Rather than focusing on spending money to gain support from ideological, ethical, social, or corporate interests, perhaps candidates might benefit from appealing to the thoughts and ideas of the American people, and not so much on impressing them with a well-financed campaign. Hopefully, the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon will reinforce the importance of a candidate’s ideas and initiatives over his or her financial support from one-sided support networks.