Skip to main content

Why I fought campaign contribution limit

By Shaun McCutcheon
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 2058 GMT (0458 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shaun McCutcheon sues to remove overall contribution limit for individuals
  • Court strikes down contribution limit, saying donations are form of free speech
  • McCutcheon: Limits had the effect of protecting incumbents, empowering special interests
  • He says he wants to make it easier for challengers to raise funds and create change

Editor's note: Shaun McCutcheon is an electrical engineer in Alabama, where he is an elected member of the Jefferson County Republican Executive and Steering Committee. He is author of the forthcoming book "Outsider Inside the Supreme Court." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday reinforced the nation's belief in freedom and its constitutional traditions with a ruling that upheld my challenge to a section of the federal election campaign law that restricted citizens' rights to express their views.

That outcome, I believe, will become part of a successful attack on the numbing political status quo in Washington and encourage activists across the nation who have fresh ideas to improve how our government operates.

I am grass-roots proof that citizens retain some influence and—with determination—can achieve positive change. I hardly suspected such an outcome in late 2011 when I launched my legal challenge.

Sean McCutcheon
Sean McCutcheon

My target was the overall limits on an individual's fully disclosed contributions to federal candidates, national political parties and political action committees. I did not challenge the specific contribution limits in each category.

This case is not about limits on the amount of money you may contribute to an individual candidate. It is about your right to contribute that amount to as many candidates as you choose. Allowing individuals to donate to as many candidates as they wish would draw contributions away from PACs and bring money directly to candidates, giving underdog candidates a fair chance in the political arena.

Sky's the limit for political donations

Like most Americans, I had little knowledge of these campaign laws—including how the Washington insiders passed them, interpreted them and enforced them. I have spent my adult life as an electrical engineer in the Birmingham, Alabama, area where I grew up and eventually created a small business that has fewer than two dozen employees. I was too busy for politics until five years ago, at age 42, when I joined many other Americans who were disenchanted by what they saw in Washington and decided to take action.

Sally Kohn: With ruling, money talks even louder in politics

The core belief that has driven my political activity and my legal challenge has been my full embrace of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. During my political science course as a freshman at Georgia Tech University, I learned about the Supreme Court's landmark 1976 decision that political activity was entitled to that protection. All the sitting justices joined, at least in part, that Buckley vs. Valeo ruling, which found that free and open debate—including unlimited campaign expenditures—is "integral to the operation of the system of government established by our Constitution."

This week's ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts restated many of those vital national values. Excessive campaign finance restrictions, he wrote, impermissibly inject the government "into the debate over who should govern." He pointedly added, "And those who govern should be the last people to help decide who should govern."

It doesn't take a political scientist to conclude that congressional incumbents have been the chief beneficiaries of these restrictions. Even with the overwhelming public unhappiness with Congress, they typically have re-election rates of roughly 95%.

A key factor is that the current system makes it much more difficult for challengers to raise money. In most cases, they simply lack the incumbents' access to tap into Washington's deep-pocketed special interests.

This status quo, which has been created chiefly by the so-called political reformers, has had the perverse—but seemingly intended—effect of protecting incumbents in both parties, except for infrequent waves of voter disgust. My objective is to assist challengers in raising funds, and to encourage smarter political ideas.

I clearly am not one of those special interests, nor am I one of the billionaires who have become political targets. Friends call me "your neighbor Shaun." With other activists, I believe that we can change our politics and draw it closer to our communities.

Having become part of public life, I have learned that political conflict and rhetoric sometimes can be hard-ball. But I have made a point of fully respecting other players, even if they criticize me.

My support of the First Amendment in this case helps extend those rights to everybody. With the Supreme Court's encouragement, I hope the nation is prepared for a robust and wide-open public debate to address our problems.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT