Albert R. Hunt: Will court widen flood of money in politics?

09/12/2013 5:32 PM

09/12/2013 5:32 PM

One of the first cases the U.S. Supreme Court will consider in its next session is whether to allow millions, perhaps billions, more dollars into the U.S. political system.

That may seem like a joke considering that more than $6 billion was pumped into last year’s elections. A flood of special-interest money, courtesy of rulings by Chief Justice John Roberts’ court, led to a campaign that many found depressing.

The issue that will be argued Oct. 8 is whether to remove the almost four-decade limit on the aggregate amounts any contributor can give directly to candidates and parties for federal elections in a single cycle. There are no limits now on independent expenditures or money given to political action committees, creating what critics call a system of legalized indirect bribery.

If the court decides to remove most of the limits on upfront contributions to presidential or congressional campaigns, it would no longer be indirect.

Going back to its first major campaign-finance decision in 1976, the high court has always distinguished between contributions, and majorities have ruled they can be limited to prevent corruption or the appearance thereof.

That contrasts with expenditures that the court has ruled are a form of speech. These rulings included the lifting of the ceiling on the amount of personal money a rich candidate could spend and the infamous Citizens United case, which freed corporate money to be spent on supposedly independent political expenditures.

Then a lower court gave the green light to wealthy individuals to give unlimited sums to so-called super PACs. They back politicians but are supposed to be distinct from the campaigns, which is a bit of a fiction.

Until now, the high court has consistently upheld limits on direct contributions to candidates for federal office or political parties. If the court reverses these precedents, the impact on campaign spending and influence-peddling would be considerable.

Under current law, a rich contributor, who can spend any amount on independent efforts or super PACs, is limited to donations of $74,600 an election cycle to the party committees; in addition, a total of $48,600 can be given to individual candidates.

Here’s what would happen if the court strikes down these aggregate limits:

Let’s say that for 2016, a presidential candidate – Hillary Clinton, for example – set up what’s called a joint fundraising committee. She could then ask, among others, the Hollywood mogul and Democratic money man Jeffrey Katzenberg to give directly almost $1.2 million to her committee.

That would include the maximum allowed to her campaign, $5,200; the maximum to the three party committees, $194,400; and the maximum to all 50 state parties, $20,000 each or $1 million. Although most of this money is supposed to go to state parties or other campaign committees, the Clinton campaign would effectively control it.

A similar joint fundraising committee could be established by, say, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

Then, Texas billionaire Harold Simmons could give Cantor’s committee directly more than $2.3 million. This would include $64,800 for the House campaign committees and the maximum of $5,200 a candidate for the 435 House candidates.

Although it’s only 10 percent of what he gave in independent spending and to PACs last year, this form of direct giving to a powerful politician is more valuable to Simmons as a political investment.

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