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Will the Court Let the Rich Become Kingmakers?

In the three years since the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to outside spending in American elections, we’ve seen a vast rise in campaign spending. Citizens United may be only the beginning.

October 5, 2013

Crossposted on MSNBC

In the three years since the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to outside spending in American elections, we’ve seen a vast rise in campaign spending. The 2012 elections, with about $7 billion in reported political spending, were by far the most expensive in history. Citizens United may be deeply unpopular—polling shows that up to 80% of the American people disagree with the ruling—but it is the law of the land. For the foreseeable future, Super PAC spending is here to stay.

That’s the bad news. What’s worse: Citizens United may be only the beginning.

On October 8, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case that could make the political system awash in even more money. The difference: these millions won’t have to be funneled through secret PACs without any nominal connection to the candidates. If the Court rules in favor of Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, unlimited money will go straight from big donors to the politicians they’re seeking to influence.

How? It’s actually pretty simple. In McCutcheon, the court will consider the constitutionality of aggregate contribution limits. This is the total amount any one donor can give in federal elections directly to all candidates, political parties, and PACs, combined. While a donor can give up to $5,200 to a single candidate, for example, with aggregate limits in place, the combined total he or she can give to all candidates through a variety of entities is $123,200.

The ceiling is important for several reasons. Money donated to one candidate, party committee, or PAC doesn’t always stay there. These organizations can, in turn, funnel the money to a single candidate. So what began as a $5,200 limit is actually a $123,200 limit. Removal of this curb will only exacerbate what is an already bad situation.

If aggregate limits were struck down, one politician could use joint fundraising committees to directly solicit more than $3.6 million from a single donor in a single election cycle. That’s more than 70 times the annual median family income.

With politicians soliciting–and donors giving–seven-figure checks, running for office will become even more expensive. The money chase will become even more fervent. Individual donation limits would be rendered meaningless. It won’t just be a question of the 1% vs. the 99%—a fraction of a fraction of 1% of all Americans will become political kingmakers.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Surveys show ordinary Americans, regardless of party, support common-sense limits on campaign contributions. Everyone has a right to political speech. But the volume of that voice should not be solely dependent on the size of one’s wallet. One can get an amplifier to speak before a crowd in a city park. But that does not mean one can purchase an amplifier so loud it drowns out the ability of everyone in the city to hold a conversation.

Although the stakes in McCutcheon v. FEC are high, there is some cause for optimism. Despite the Supreme Court’s recent record as a defender of moneyed interests, this should be an easy case for upholding limits. The court has never struck down a federal contribution limit as unconstitutional. Even in Citizens United, the Court justice emphasized that curbs on direct contributions are both constitutional and necessary to prevent corruption. If the justices reverse course on October 8, the consequences for democracy could be grave.

(Photo: Thinkstock)