As if we don't have enough money in politics already

By Jessica A. Levinson | Los Angeles Times Published:

Thank you, Supreme Court. Before your decision Wednesday in McCutcheon v. FEC, Americans were confined to giving a measly total of $48,600 in campaign contributions to federal candidates (enough for about nine candidates) and a total of $74,600 to political action committees. That means individuals were subject to aggregate contribution limits totaling a mere $123,200.

Of course, individuals could, and still can, give unlimited sums to independent groups, such as so-called super PACs and other nonprofit corporations. Much of this giving remains undisclosed.

And how many people were handcuffed by these limits? Well, fewer than 600 donors, or 0.0000019 percent of Americans, gave the maximum amount under those oh-so-restrictive limits, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And 0.1 percent of 310 million Americans give $2,500 or more in political campaigns.

Well, good news for you big donors: no more pesky aggregate contribution limits. Sure, you are still limited to giving only $5,200 per federal candidate ($2,600 for the primary and $2,600 for the general) and $5,000 annually per PAC. But now you can directly support as many candidates as you want.

As Justice Antonin Scalia noted in the October hearing in this case: "I don't think $3.5 million is a heck of a lot of money." That's the total a single donor could give if he or she donated the maximum allowed in every congressional race in the nation.

Our current campaign finance framework stands as a sad relic of the comprehensive system passed in the early 1970s, when Congress enacted the Federal Election Campaign Act, the nation's first wide-ranging set of campaign finance restrictions.

The weakening of campaign finance restrictions began in 1976 with a bungled but seminal decision in which the high court ruled that money should be viewed as speech. In Buckley v. Valeo, the court upheld contribution limits (including the now-invalid aggregate contribution limits) but struck down the expenditure limits. And thus the court kicked off the endless fundraising race that is now such a familiar facet of political campaigns.

Now donors have plenty of ways to provide money directly to candidates. They can give to joint fundraising committees, a candidate's party's PAC and on and on.

Where does McCutcheon leave us? It leaves people like me who believe it is both legal and good policy to limit the influence of money in politics in an existential crisis. As ever more money is injected into our political system, it is worth asking how we want that money to flow, whether it be through direct contributions, independent expenditures or another mechanism.

The base contribution limits could be the next restriction on the chopping block. If that's the case, we must come up with better ways to create a system of true transparency.

Here's looking at you, Congress, states and government agencies.

Jessica A. Levinson, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School-Los Angeles, is the vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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  • "But now you can directly support as many candidates as you want."

    Oh, the horror! How will the republic survive when people can support as many candidates as they want!?

    Newspapers can endorse as many candidates as they want, can't they? So why should people be prevented from supporting as many candidates as they want, too?

    There is still a limit on contributions to each candidate. If the government considers $5200 to be a non-corrupting amount of money to contribute to one candidate, then why is that same amount suddenly corrupting when given to more candidates?

    You'll notice this absurd editorial gives not one single reason why people should be prevented from supporting as many candidates as they want. We all know why liberals hate free speech -- because the speech is directed against them.