Is it possible for campaign finance regulations to get any weaker?

Writing for Bloomberg, Al Hunt calls attention to a case that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear in October that could make it even easier for high-rollers to finance their favorite candidates.

Way back in the immediate post-Watergate era, Congress put fairly strict limits on the amount that any individual, corporation or union could give directly to a candidate’s campaign committee or to the party organs. Decades later, aided substantially by the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United, those limits have lost most of their effect. The gag under Citizens United is that. in order to protect the First Amendment rights of free expression, individuals and collectives can give almost unlimited amounts in barely-disguised efforts to help the candidates and parties of their choice as long as the money didn’t flow directly to the candidates’ committee but through shell organizations like SuperPACs.

Now comes McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which asks the court to further unchain the free speech rights of political donors by allowing them to give vast amounts directly to the candidates and the parties.

I’m not sure how much it matters. Hunt thinks it does. Here’s his argument:

“It’s first necessary to understand that all political spending isn’t equal. Any campaign will tell you that the money it controls is far more valuable than the money spent by outside supporters. The money unleashed by Citizens United and other decisions contributed to the ugly tone of last year’s campaign, but it wasn’t as important as the money spent by President Obama, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and most congressional candidates.

Under current law, a rich contributor, who can spend any amount on independent efforts or super-PACs, is limited to donations of $74,600 an election cycle to the party committees; in addition, a total of $48,600 can be given to individual candidates. Here’s what would happen if the court strikes down these aggregate limits:

Let’s say that for 2016, a presidential candidate — Hillary Clinton, for example — set up what’s called a joint fundraising committee. She could then ask, among others, the Hollywood mogul and Democratic money man Jeffrey Katzenberg to give directly almost $1.2 million to her committee, in addition to his other political spending.

That would include the maximum allowed to her campaign, $5,200; the maximum to the three party committees, $194,400; and the maximum to all 50 state parties, $20,000 each or $1 million. Although most of this money is supposed to go to state parties or other campaign committees, the Clinton campaign would effectively control it. That adds considerable value and clout for any donor.

A similar joint fundraising committee could be established by, say, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Then, Harold Simmons, the Texas billionaire with interests in mining and toxic dump sites who is always on the lookout for political favors (he doled out $27 million last year), could give Cantor’s committee directly more than $2.3 million. This would include $64,800 for the House campaign committees and the maximum of $5,200 a candidate for the 435 House candidates.

Although it’s only 10 percent of what he gave in independent spending and to PACs last year, this form of direct giving to a powerful politician is more valuable to Simmons as a political investment.”

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/29/2013 - 10:26 am.

    Yes, Give it Directly

    The biggest difference that campaign finance laws have made over the past forty years is to make it difficult or impossible for the non-rich to run for office. The laws haven’t done a thing to curb cronyism. They haven’t stopped government from being cozy with big businesses. They certainly haven’t stopped the spinning door between government officials and business sinecures.
    Instead we have a situation where the only people that can compete for high profile positions are those that are already rich. If Gov. Dayton had been born into a typical middle class family, would he have enjoyed a tenth of the political success that he has? On the flip side, the situation has become so bad that we probably could not elect a Paul Wellstone today. (I disagreed with him politically, voted against him, but respected his intellect and integrity.)
    I’d much rather have billionaires giving money to the Wellstones than suffering through more mediocre Daytons.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/29/2013 - 08:44 pm.

      Of course

      neither of our current Senators (the office that Paul Wellstone held) were wealthy enough to finance their own campaigns.
      Tim Walz was living on a teacher’s salary when he first ran for Congress in 2006; a lot less than 40 years ago.

      I agree that campaign finance laws as currently corrupted do little to curb corporate corruption of the political process. When Karl Rove can claim to be independent of the Republican Party the laws are not functioning as they were intended to. Part of that is the responsibility of the Roberts court.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/29/2013 - 03:45 pm.

    “Any campaign will tell you that the money it controls is far

    more important….”

    This assumes that ‘outside’ supporters do in fact act independently of the political parties (see: Karl Rove).
    As usual, the Roberts majority will draw reasonable sounding conclusions totally divorced from the way things really work.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/29/2013 - 03:38 pm.

    All campaign finance laws are unconstitutional

    and the amounts mentioned in the laws ($74,600 to the party, $48,600 to individual candidates) for example, are arbitrary and capricious.

    They’re no more constitutional then allowing the government to tell a newspaper how many barrels of ink it can buy.

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