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Campaign Finance Law Can Be Boring, But This Case Really Matters

In October, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to one type of contribution limits—what individuals can give in total, or “aggregate,” to all federal political committees. Here’s what you need to know about McCutcheon v. FEC.

1. An Alabama businessman and the Republican National Committee want the Supreme Court to throw out “aggregate contribution limits.” The case is called McCutcheon v. FEC.

Federal law sets limits on what individuals can donate to federal candidates, parties, and political action committees (PACs).

The case before the Supreme Court, as presented, would not touch limits on what individuals can give to candidates ($5,200 per election cycle), PACs ($5,000 per year), and national political parties ($32,400 per year).

It’s about a sort of “super limit” on contributions—what individuals can give across all federal committees. For the 2014 cycle, that’s $123,200, or more than twice what average American families make in a year. It’s usually called the “aggregate contribution limit.”

On October 8th, lawyers for Shaun McCutcheon will argue before the Supreme Court that this super limit should be thrown out.

2. Throwing out aggregate contribution limits would put our elections more squarely in the hands of a wealthy few.

The wealthy already have a pretty big say in our political process. Just one ten thousandth of Americans (about 31,000 people) made up a full 25 percent of all campaign contributions in the 2012 election cycle, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

In 2012, about 1,200 people reached, or got close to, the aggregate limit being challenged, according to Public Campaign analysis of campaign finance data. A quarter of these donors work on Wall Street or in the finance sector. About 1 in 6 of the country’s billionaires are on the list.

Like all of us, these donors have a stake in the outcome of elections. But what separates these big donors from regular people is that they get special treatment and access most Americans can’t afford.

Throwing out aggregate contribution limits would only increase political inequality, giving those who already have a megaphone in politics an amplifier.

3. Sen. Mitch McConnell thinks McCutcheon doesn’t go far enough.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the leading opponent of common sense campaign finance policy in Congress, wants the Court to get rid of limits altogether, a move that would allow wealthy Americans to donate unlimited sums directly to candidates of their choice—something McCutcheon has said he doesn’t support.

His lawyer will get to present this view during oral arguments in the case.

4. Following past precedent, the Court should uphold the limits.

Contribution limits are an important tool toward limiting government corruption by outside interests and there is longstanding precedent for upholding them.

Eighty-five members of the U.S. House and two-dozen organizations—groups like the AARP, NAACP, and Sierra Club—have signed “friend of the court” briefs calling on the court to uphold the limits.

Our elections shouldn’t just be an argument between wealthy Democrats and wealthy Republicans. The Supreme Court should side with the voices of everyday people and defend these common sense limits on how much influence wealthy special interests can buy in Washington.

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