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Three years after endorsing legalized bribery through the Citizens United ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could, incredibly enough, pump even more money into future elections. The plaintiffs in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) are seeking the outright elimination of the $123,200 “aggregate limit” on how much one donor may give to candidates, political parties and PACs each election cycle.
Imagine for a moment that you’re a wealthy individual with money in your pocket and a political agenda to advance. According to the FEC’s current guidelines, the most you can give to any one candidate in the upcoming election cycle is $5,200. You can attempt to gain influence with direct contributions to as many candidates as you want so long as your total contributions for the 2013-14 elections don’t exceed the FEC’s $48,600 cap. In real-world terms, you’d be legally forbidden from funding 49 candidates at $1000 each. Even though $1000 is well below the individual contribution limit, that $49,000 total would exceed the aggregate limit.
The same principle applies when it comes to national party committees and other political action committees, but with a higher aggregate limit of $74,600. The important thing to remember here is that if you want to buy political influence, your ability to make direct contributions maxes out at $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to PACs — for a total of $123,200 per election cycle. If you want to keep spending past that, you’ll have to enter the wacky world of independent expenditures, which is where the infamous SuperPAC comes in.
If Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee get their way, however, the SuperPACs’ status as the biggest bully on the block could be short-lived. Removing aggregate contribution limits would result in a wave of new PACs and an explosion in joint-fundraising committee activity. Since wealthy donors would be able to direct money to PACs, which can in turn give money directly to candidates in increments of $5000, this would render the $2600 individual contribution limit effectively meaningless and allow special interests to enjoy greater influence over elected officials. No aggregate limit means that the $123,200 figure we mentioned earlier would balloon to $3.6 million. A ruling in McCutcheon’s favor would mean more expensive elections, more negative ads, and even less political access for the 99.9998% of Americans who don’t have $123,200 to spare for influence peddling.
You read that percentage correctly. An analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found that just 646 people — that’s .0002% of the U.S. population — came close to hitting the aggregate limits being challenged by McCutcheon. Abolishing the aggregate limit would give this vanishingly small percentage of the population free reign to take advantage of a quirk in campaign finance regulations that ensures candidates may buy television and radio ads at the bargain basement “lowest unit rate,” which can be as much as six time less than the rate charged to outside groups. If you found 2012’s deluge of negative SuperPAC ads nauseating (a full three-quarters of ads in the presidential race appealed to anger), you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The bottom line is this: Under current law, your ability to buy political influence maxes out at $123,200. With McCutcheon, individuals could spend as much as $3.6 million to bend the laws of the most powerful country on earth to their will. A ruling in McCutcheon’s favor would foster unprecedented levels of political corruption and drown out the voices of average Americans in a way not seen since the Gilded Age.