A bold and broad decision by the court in one of its first cases of the new term, Shaun McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which the justices are to hear Tuesday, could overturn decades of precedent about the remaining power the government has to limit contributions to candidates and parties.
Critics argue that such limits impinge free expression. Supporters view the caps as the last dam preventing a tidal wave of money from flooding federal campaigns, which have been buffeted by an explosion of super PACs fueled by unlimited donations.
The current case, brought by Shaun McCutcheon, a businessman from Hoover, Ala., and the Republican National Committee, involves a restriction that many Americans are probably unaware of and even fewer could afford to violate: the limit on the overall amount that one person may give during a two-year election cycle to federal candidates, political parties and committees.
That limit is $123,200, including a $48,600 cap on total candidate contributions. If the court sides with McCutcheon, party leaders could set up a joint fundraising committee with their presidential nominee, congressional candidates and state affiliates to accept nearly $3.7 million from an individual in each election cycle, defenders of the limits say.
“A system in which an individual can provide millions of dollars — potentially in response to direct solicitations from the president and members of Congress — to finance parties and their candidates would substantially replicate the Watergate-era and soft-money systems that resulted in well-documented instances of corruption and apparent corruption,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. told the court in a brief.
Advocates of campaign finance regulation say the stakes are much higher than simply preserving the current system of aggregate limits.
“They very well may set the stage to strike all contribution limits,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that seeks to reduce the influence of money on politics. “That would take us back to the 1870s and the era of robber barons.”
McCutcheon, the chief executive of an electrical engineering firm, favors tea party candidates and laughs off descriptions of himself as “Alabama’s Koch brother,” a reference to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists who back conservative causes.
“I’m working on my first billion and I do believe in the freedom to do that,” McCutcheon said at a recent lunch interview in Washington. “I’m just another political activist trying to change the world.”