McCutcheon v. FEC: More Money in Politics, Less Integrity in Democracy?

BY STEVEN SWARTZ — The United States Supreme Court issued a ruling this month in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that allows money to play a larger role in political campaigns. The plaintiff, Shaun McCutcheon, is a wealthy Alabama businessman and contributor to the Republican Party. He wanted to donate more than the decades-old aggregate limit of $123,200 in contributions from an individual to federal candidates, parties, and political action committees for each campaign cycle. So he sued the FEC on the basis that the limit violates his First Amendment rights.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted the FEC’s motion to dismiss. The court held that aggregate limits are justified as “a means of preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption, or as a means of preventing circumvention of contribution limits imposed to further its anticorruption interest.” On appeal, the Supreme Court held, in a 5-4 decision, that corruption and the appearance of corruption was not at issue, and therefore the limits unduly restricted First Amendment free speech rights.

Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, explained that overall limits on political contributions could not survive First Amendment scrutiny. “The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment,” he wrote, “but that right is not absolute. . . . Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Only quid pro quo corruption, however, or the appearance thereof, implicates a “legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances.”

Quid pro quo corruption, also known as bribery, is where one party gives money to another in order to get something in exchange for the money. The Court explained that political contributions do not implicate this form of corruption. “Ingratiation and access [ ] are not corruption. . . . They embody a central feature of democracy—that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be respon­sive to those concerns.”

Unsurprisingly, the Court’s decision raises the concern that big money will begin to play an even larger role in political engineering and the influence of the average American’s voice will become diluted. In the days following the decision, there were 150 demonstrations protesting the ruling across forty-one states. Move to Amend, a coalition with over 300,000 members, is trying to pass a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon. On their website,, the coalition explains that it is concerned that this ruling will compel already-frustrated Americans to cease voting altogether, since their voice means virtually nothing anymore.

It is important to note that while the ruling struck down limits on aggregate federal campaign contributions, it did not affect limits on how much individuals can give to a single politician’s campaign. That limit remains at $2,600 per election. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s decision is a big win for the wealthy, and one that will likely have adverse implications for the average American.

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