Debate Club

The Government Shutdown Shows Contribution Limits Are Needed More Than Ever


The Supreme Court must uphold the overall contribution limit in McCutcheon v. FEC, and certainly should not consider striking the base limits.

The Supreme Court has never struck down a federal contribution limit, maintaining that these limits are valid to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption. Right now, when confidence in Congress is at an all time low, it would be extremely unwise to toss aside that precedent.

The fact is, contribution limits are already too high. Candidates for office are over-reliant on donors with the capabilities to give the most and current federal limits are far higher than what the average American can afford to give. As evidence of this, one need not look further than the 2012 elections, in which House candidates raised 55 percent of their individual contributions in chunks of $1,000 or more from just .06 percent of the population and Senate candidates raked in 64 percent in contributions of that size from about 133,000 individuals.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

Striking the aggregate limit would make that problem significantly worse. Only a small handful of individuals comes even close to the aggregate limit. In 2012 only 1,219 people came within 10 percent of the $117,000 limit, which is not at all surprising when you consider that this is more than twice what the average American household earns in a year.

Based on the behavior and the giving capability of those 1,219 donors, U.S. PIRG and Demos project in our new report that absent an overall limit those donors would increase their giving, pumping an estimated $1 billion dollars into the next four federal elections, making candidates more dependent on a small set of people for big money and minimizing the donations of everyday Americans. To play out what that would look like, we estimated that if the limit had not been in place in 2012, the 1,219 donors would likely have given about 150 percent of what President Obama and Governor Romney raised from over four million small donors.

Now in the second week of the shutdown, we are currently feeling the full effect of what happens when a handful of extreme individuals exerts disproportionate power in government. Lifting the overall limit, as McCutcheon is asking the Court to do, would give even more clout to a small set of very wealthy individuals. This is not only inherently anti-democratic but also has real world consequences. New research from Public Campaign shows that these big donors are highly partisan donors indicating that striking the limits would further exacerbate polarization in Washington.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

In order for democracy to function every citizen should have meaningful opportunity to influence the actions of government and we must also have faith that our voices will be heard, regardless of whether or not we can afford to make a $9.9 million, $2,500, or even $200 political disbursement.  The Supreme Court has long recognized this, emphasizing the importance of protecting against the appearance of corruption. However, it severely miscalculated the effect its decision in Citizens United would have in that arena.

Most Americans do not feel that our voices are being heard on Capitol Hill and who could blame us? In Citizens United the Supreme Court handed a giant megaphone to the wealthiest interests and on Tuesday it will consider turning up the volume even higher. It's interesting that those who argue that limits threaten free speech seem unconcerned with the speaking ability of the majority of Americans who cannot afford to write a $50,000 check to a political party.

The last thing we need right now is to increase the giving of the donors with the deepest pockets. Rather, we should be increasing the breadth of Americans providing the funds needed to run campaigns. We need policies that encourage more everyday Americans to engage in politics by making small contributions to candidates and causes: low contribution limits, matching public funds, and a tax refund for small dollar gifts. We need the Supreme Court to respect longstanding precedent and to uphold the aggregate and the base contribution limits.

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  • Blair Bowie

    About Blair Bowie Democracy Advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group

    campaign finance
    Supreme Court

    Other Arguments

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    -40 Pts
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