A recent article by in the Huffington Post by Jay Pinho alludes to the thorny spot that progressives have found themselves in vis-a-vis campaign finance rules, ever since the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case in 2010. He discusses the recent victory of Robin Kelly the IL-2 special primary election, and the instrumental role that Michael Bloomberg played in Kelly’s electoral success. Bloomberg flooded the race with money in order to make good on his promise to support gun control advocates. The point he makes is this: how do Democrats celebrate these progressive victories, while at the same time, work to reverse the rules the allowed them the power to get their message out in the first place?
Pinho also mentions the frustration felt among progressives in knowing that the Supreme Court has the potential to further roll back campaign spending rules when it hears the McCutcheon vs. FEC case in October. He states, “in conjunction with the Court’s notorious Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision from 2010, which lifted the ban on corporate expenditures and led to an explosion of outside spending during last year’s election campaigns, such a ruling in McCutcheon would augur a decisive transformation of American electoral norms — from “one person, one vote” to something approaching ‘one dollar, one vote’.”
The McCutcheon case challenges the constitutionality of individual aggregation limits, which refer to the maximum amount that one individual can contribute to parties, PACs, and candidates during any two year election cycle. For the 2013-2014 election cycle, this amount is $123,200. Of this amount, no more than $48,600 can go to candidates; the remainder must go to either PACs or party committees. This limit should not be confused with the maximum amount that candidates are allowed to receive for their campaigns, which remains unchallenged, and at $2600 per election. If the Supreme Court sides with McCutcheon, then this limit will be abolished, and individuals will be free to contribute the maximum allowable amount to as many candidates as they choose. Thus, the case can perhaps be better understood as an attempt to abolish the limit on the number of candidates individuals can support, rather than the amount of money they can spend per se.
There are several reasons that progressives should take pause before automatically lambasting all individuals, organizations, or proposals to alter extant campaign finance regulation. First, the practical effects of eliminating individual aggregation amounts is likely to be minimal. At the current limit, individuals can “max-out,” in other words, contribute the maximum amount of $2600 to both the primary and general elections of a particular candidate, to no more than nine congressional contenders during a two year period. Of the very small percentage of Americans that contribute to congressional elections at all, an even smaller amount max-out to any one candidate. The number of individuals who max-out to nine candidates, and exhaust their $48,600 allowance, is minuscule in proportion.
Second, if candidates are to become less reliant on Super PACs and other outside groups, then measures that make it easier to raise money in a transparent way, and in accordance with contribution limits, could be a beneficial thing. It is impossible for one organization, party, or even Congress, to control the political messages that make it to the airwaves. What these organizations can control is who is accountable for the messages that are made, and their level of transparency. Unlike ad hoc organizations like Super PACs, elected officials and candidates are accountable for the statements they make and their legitimacy is dependent upon it. Therefore measures that empower candidates relative to outside organizations perhaps deserve a second look by progressives that desire an improved campaign finance system.