TAMPA — If you think you’re seeing too many political campaign ads at election time, the U.S. Supreme Court has a decision you may not like.
On a 5-4 vote last week, the court eliminated “aggregate” limits, the total contributions a single donor can make to federal political candidates and national parties.
The decision removes at least one impediment for the wealthiest donors — those interested in contributing more than $50,000 in a two-year election cycle.
Some political operatives say the result of McCutcheon v. FEC won’t be huge, but campaign finance law experts say it also leaves the door open for bigger steps, including eliminating the foundation stone of campaign finance restrictions, the “base limits” on the amount one donor can give to one candidate.
“It just opens up yet another route for buying influence,” said Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Centerin Washington.
The decision also raises another question: With the court knocking down one campaign finance restriction after another, what will the campaigns use all the money for?
The answer, operatives say: Some will go for more digital ads that pop up on websites and social media, for targeted robocalls and mailers, and more staff to organize voter-turnout efforts.
But most will still go to what some voters complain of already: the ubiquitous 30-second TV attack ads starting earlier in the election year and coming on even more often.
“We know TV works,” said Tampa-based Democratic political consultant Ana Cruz. “TV is the 800-pound gorilla of campaign tactics.”
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The Supreme Court decision is named for Alabama electrical engineer and state Republican Party finance chairman Shaun McCutcheon.
McCutcheon wanted to give to lots of Republican candidates for Congress. He’s allowed to give up to $5,200 to each candidate in a two-year election cycle, but he ran into the aggregate limit: $48,600 total per cycle.
There was also a $74,600-a-year aggregate limit on donations to parties and their affiliated committees, along with the base limit of $32,400 per contribution.
Those committees include the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Republican National Congressional Committee, which raise money for U.S. House candidates and spent heavily in the recent David Jolly-Alex Sink race in Pinellas County. They also include similar Senate campaign committees and the national parties themselves.
The decision left the base limits in place but eliminated the aggregates.
If McCutcheon or someone like him wanted to give the maximum to every U.S. House and Senate candidate and affiliated committee of a single party, Malloy said, he now can spend about $3.5 million in one election cycle.
That doesn’t count contributions to political action committees and the independent “social welfare” groups, political committees thinly disguised as nonprofit issue organizations, which don’t reveal their donors.
In a conference call with reporters last week, national Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus said the GOP funded McCutcheon’s challenge to the limits as a way to enhance the influence of parties by allowing them to collect more money.
But Priebus said it would also increase transparency because it would allow big donors to send more money to the parties, which must report their donors, instead of the nonprofit groups, which don’t.
The parties “disclose the most to the public but can raise the least,” he said.
But, Malloy said, “I very much doubt this will lead to any diminishment in super PACs and independent committees; it’s naïve to think they will simply go away.”
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Many donors give to those organizations so they can fund attack ads with the cover of anonymity and no direct link to the candidate or party.
“It’s an easy way to go negative without getting any blood on the candidates’ hands,” Malloy said.
Washington-based campaign finance expert Robert Kelner said the decision will augment the power of leaders in Congress: committee chairmen, speakers, and majority and minority leaders.
“By virtue of their positions, they can attract the interest of major donors” who have enough money to give maximum contributions to numerous candidates, Kelner said.
There’s plenty of room for more spending on many kinds of political advertising, he said.
“By comparison, what’s spent on political ads is only a tiny fraction of spending on other consumer products — toothpaste, beer, cars.”
Tampa-based Republican political consultant Fred Piccolo said he’s not sure the McCutcheon decision will result in a flood of new money.
“There just aren’t that many people who reach their maximum every cycle,” he said. “There’s not enough of them to make a real impact from a candidate’s perspective.”
Even wealthy donors, he said, get tired of repeated demands for maximum contributions. The decision eliminates a polite excuse they formerly had: “I can’t contribute, I’ve already hit my maximum.”
Even if the decision doesn’t open the floodgates, those who advocate limits on political spending fear it lays the groundwork for another decision that would: eliminating the base limits.
Writing for the majority of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said campaign finance limits amount to limits on free speech that are valid only if they prevent “quid pro quo” corruption, or money in return for a specific vote or action.
Heavy spending on campaigns, Roberts said, is not necessarily bribery.
That suggests a rationale for revoking even the base limits on the amount of a contribution to a campaign, said a concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas.
But Malloy, with the Campaign Legal Center, said that’s too narrow a definition of corruption.
“Big donors can get influence and access to officials that ordinary citizens don’t have, changing the entire legislative process,” she said.
“The purchase of influence and access is damaging to democracy. The public isn’t simply concerned about suitcases of money, but that big donors call the shots in Washington in other ways. The court is dismissing something most Americans see as corruption.”