Will McCutcheon Ruling Boost Political Parties?

Priebus voiced his excitement on the ruling Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus could hardly contain his glee during a conference call with reporters shortly after the Supreme Court ruled to strike the aggregate limit on campaign contributions.  

“We are excited about the outcome of this case,” exulted Priebus, noting that the RNC bankrolled the constitutional challenge brought by businessman Shaun McCutcheon from beginning to end. In McCutcheon v. FEC , the court ruled 5-4 to overturn the overall limit on what an individual may donate collectively to parties, candidates and PACs in one election cycle, which was capped at $123,200 total.  

The ruling “allows us to go to our donors and say: Look instead of being able to give to only nine Senate candidates, you can now give to the 14 that are most in play,” Priebus told reporters. “And you can give to the Senate committee, the congressional committee and the RNC, and you can max out to all three.”  

Priebus wasn’t the only party official rejoicing in the wake of the high court’s Wednesday ruling. One Democratic campaign committee operative confided that he was “happy as a pig in shit.” While advocates of campaign finance limits on and off Capitol Hill assailed the ruling as an invitation to corruption and campaign finance abuses, party officials welcomed the decision. The national party committees have good reason to celebrate, election lawyers say. Under the old rules, an individual contributor could give no more than $74,600 overall to the political party committees in a given election cycle. The “base” limit that caps the size of the contribution — $2,600 on what an individual may give to a candidate per election, for example — remains intact. But in the wake of the ruling, a big donor may give the maximum to all three party committees.  

“The biggest winners in this decision are the national party committees,” said Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, of Perkins Coie. The aggregate limits restricted how many party committees a donor could “max out” support for in any given year, he said, “so this will allow them to raise more money from those who want to give to them. This will also help the campaigns, who also face donors who have maxed out under those limits.”  

Republicans who hailed the decision as a victory for the First Amendment have largely cast the ruling as a victory for “hard” money that is subject to contribution limits and disclosure. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC to lift all limits on independent political spending filled the coffers of super PACs and politically active tax-exempt groups with unrestricted, often undisclosed money. Conservatives argue that party officials should enjoy the same freedoms.  

“What the campaign finance laws have done is put party committees in a place where we have the most restriction, the most disclosure, and we can raise the least amount,” said Priebus. “Whereas after all these laws ... what’s happened is the groups that can raise the most disclose the least."  

But advocates of political money limits warned that the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling will essentially invite a return to the soft money era that allowed political parties to raise and spend unlimited amounts, before the McCain-Feingold law banned soft money in 2002. Without the aggregate limits, they warn, a single donor could donate $3.5 million at a pop to a joint fundraising committee that would then distribute the money to multiple candidates and party committees. And as in the soft money days, federal officials will be the ones doing the fundraising.  

“We’re very concerned about the practical impact of the decision, because it enables one office holder or candidate to solicit enormous checks from an individual donor for joint fundraising committees,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. Moving forward, progressive activists said the ruling will fuel their movement to push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling.  

“By eliminating aggregate contribution limits, nothing can stop a single millionaire from lining the pockets of an entire state’s congressional delegation, or giving one check to every member of a party in Congress,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., at a Capitol Hill press conference after the ruling. Schumer said his Rules and Administration Committee will hold hearings about the ruling, which he said “just weakens everybody’s faith in government.”  

In his opinion for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that congressional remedies, including disclosure and restrictions on transfers between committees, could forestall the types of abuses that critics fear. But Schumer voiced skepticism that disclosure legislation, for one, would get far in this Congress.  

"They’ve said all along that we could implement more disclosure,” Schumer said. "We’ve tried. Our Republican colleagues — [Kentucky Republican] Mitch McConnell used to get up and say disclosure is the answer — have, in an act of supreme self-interest, been against disclosure. They know they are benefiting from this far more than we are — not from this decision, but from the overall impact of the money.”  

In the short term, the ruling may help Republicans more than Democrats, said Dave Russell, head of the lobbying practice group at Bryan Cave: "I think Republicans benefit more than Democrats because they have more high net-worth donors, generally speaking, and I think those donors are much more motivated in this cycle.”  

In the long term, though, the ruling will help both parties hold their own in the face of elections increasingly dominated by outside groups, said Michael Moreland, a law professor at Villanova University.  

"In both parties, I think it will temper some extreme voices,” said Moreland, who served as a White House policy adviser under President George W. Bush. "Because it will mean that larger party committees, which by definition need to forward a consensus agenda, will be able to participate more robustly because they have more funding available.”  

Niels Lesniewski and Kyle Trygstad contributed to this report.