Skip to main content

Donation limits help keep politics honest

By Meredith McGehee, Special to CNN
October 2, 2013 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
A case challenging aggregate limits on individual campaign donations will go before the Supreme Court on October 8.
A case challenging aggregate limits on individual campaign donations will go before the Supreme Court on October 8.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Supreme Court takes on a challenge to $123,200 aggregate campaign contribution limit
  • Limit is the total you can give to federal candidates each two-year election cycle
  • Meredith McGehee: If court gets rid of limits, it invites corruption and gives advantage to the rich
  • Large contributions are corrupting, she says; they buy access and influence to power

Editor's note: Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.

(CNN) -- Are you worried that millionaires don't have enough influence in our elections? If you can't contribute more than $123,000 to politicians, are your free speech rights harmed?

At least 99% of Americans would laugh at the absurdity of these questions, but not Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama political donor. McCutcheon v. FEC, his court challenge to the $123,200 aggregate contribution limit, has made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it will be heard on October 8.

Aggregate limits -- or the total someone can contribute to federal candidates and committees each two-year election cycle -- was previously before the Supreme Court.

Meredith McGehee
Meredith McGehee

In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court found the limits constitutional because they prevent corruption of federal officeholders and government decisions.

The court wrote, "But this quite modest restraint upon protected political activity serves to prevent evasion of the $1,000 contribution limitation by a person who might otherwise contribute massive amounts of money to a particular candidate" through "contributions to political committees likely to contribute to that candidate, or huge contributions to the candidate's political party."

Now, especially after throwing out a century's worth of law approving restrictions on corporate campaign expenditures in rulings, including Citizens United, one would expect the Supreme Court to leave some of its campaign finance precedents intact. With this challenge to another longstanding law, the court will have its chance.

One argument advanced by McCutcheon's supporters is that because the Citizens United decision unleashed millions of dollars in independent electoral spending, much of it from anonymous sources, the role of political parties has been diminished to the detriment of our political system. That's hogwash. McCutcheon supporters propose throwing out aggregate limits so the parties can raise more than $1 million from a single contributor.

The corruption that would arise from eliminating these limits is not hypothetical.
Meredith McGehee

Eliminating the aggregate limits would only invite more political corruption.

First, it would provide another advantage for the tiny fraction of Americans who have the means to give so lavishly. In 2012, only four out of 1,000 Americans made political contributions of $200 or more, and the proportion of Americans who give the maximum amount of contributions allowed under federal law is much smaller.

By way of perspective, McCutcheon challenges a contribution cap for individuals of $123,200 -- or more than twice the $51,017 the average American family earns a year before taxes. Eliminating this "quite modest restraint" would further empower the very few Americans who can afford to give such sums, and it would bring us pretty close to the definition of oligarchy.

Second, the corruption that would arise from eliminating these limits is not hypothetical. The record presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of McConnell v FEC -- the decision that upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign financing act -- confirmed that the parties can and do serve as conduits for huge donors seeking specific outcomes in Washington and state capitals across the country.

Not only does the lower court record make clear that large contributions buy access and influence -- read the depositions of Sen. Warren Rudman, R-New Hampshire; Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, and Paul Simon, D-Illinois -- but they also affect Senate action.

For example, the court record shows that in 1996, during Senate consideration of an amendment to benefit Federal Express, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, said a senior senator suggested to him that he support the amendment because "they just gave us $100,000."

The record reports that a popular generic drug bill died in Congress in 2002, shortly after two Republican Party congressional committees held a large gala fundraiser to raise almost $30 million in contributions. Among the largest contributors to the gala were GlaxoSmithKline PLC, PhRMA , Pfizer, Eli Lilly & Co., Bayer AG and Merck & Co.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, summed up the problem this way: "There's a terrible appearance when the Generic Drug Bill, which passes by 78 votes through the Senate, is not allowed to be brought up in the House shortly after a huge fundraiser with multimillion-dollar contributions from the pharmaceutical drug companies who are opposed to the legislation."

Third, allowing donors a direct route to funnel millions straight to parties and candidates will not stop the anonymous independent spending. These expenditures will persist because they offer distinct advantages: They allow donors to hide their identities from the public, and allow candidates to outsource the dirty work, like attack ads.

If the Supreme Court sides with McCutcheon, all it will have done is open new routes for corruption without closing the old ones.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Meredith McGehee.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT