McCutcheon v. FEC and Its Effect On Future Elections

Yanet Gonzalez ’17 – Women in Leadership

The framers’ commitment to ensure that freedom of speech is not infringed upon is evident in the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Despite the clarity of the words, the most prominent question after identifying what constitutes as “speech,” is the degree to which the Constitution protects that speech. The importance of this amendment cannot be denied given that it was public speech against an oppressive Great Britain, which fueled the revolution and served as founding principles for a new nation. Throughout the years of countless cases dealing with free speech that have come before the Supreme Court and despite the seemingly overarching umbrella that protects everything underneath it, the Supreme Court has demonstrated that there are still limits to the First Amendment.

The quest to regulate campaign finance peaked in March of 2002 when President Bush signed into law the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). Primarily, the act imposed two different types of limits. A base limit, which is how much money one can contribute to a particular candidate or committee, and aggregate limits, which restrict how much money can be donated in total. Under the BCRA, the aggregate limits were adjusted to future inflation and the limits for individual contributions were changed from annual to biennial. In 2013-2014, the aggregate amount that an individual was able to donate was capped at $123,200, which included candidates, national party committees and other political committees. Citizens like Shawn McCutcheon however, believed that the regulations under the BCRA prohibited him contributing amounts at his own discretion, thus impeding on his right to free speech. The Supreme Court decided that the BCRA did not provide a sufficient governmental interest in preventing corruption and that the limitations imposed by this act severely interfere with the “core values” of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court insisted there are multiple ways in which one can be involved with the electoral process that does not involve donating money such as running for office themselves or working in a campaign. However, after cases like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon, the role of wealthy individuals and corporations will alter the political process in an unimaginable way.

One of the major ways in which the McCutcheon will influence elections is that it will place a greater importance of joint fundraising committees (JFCs). It will become legal for JFC’s to “bundle together their contributions to several entities in a single check.” Furthermore, it will increase the influence of major donors, which in turn will increase the political power of “members of congress who have a strong relationship with high-net-worth donors” In 2012, a study showed that 216 people contributed roughly 68% of the total money received by super PACs. In addition, the Center for Responsive Politics also found that the 1.2 million people, who donated during the 2012 election cycle, were able to raise a total of 2.8 billion dollars.

These statistics reinforce the idea that without limits to aggregate contributions, a very small portion of the population can fund an entire campaign. The unintended consequences of the McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission will undoubtedly affect elections in the years to come. The door will remain open for future generations to find a balance between protecting our First Amendment rights and maintaining the integrity of our political process.