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April 02, 2014 5:36 PM Why the McCutcheon Decision Might Make Politics More Transparent and Accountable

By Seth Masket

So the Supreme Court dropped a bombshell today with its decision in the McCutcheon v. FEC case, ruling that aggregate limits on contributions to federal campaigns are unconstitutional. This is an important case, but not the dramatic game-changer it will likely be portrayed as. Notably, they didn’t touch existing bans on donations from unions or corporations, nor did they invalidate the cap on individual contributions, which is currently set at $2,600. What they did get rid of is the aggregate donation caps, currently $48,600 (to candidates) and $74,600 (to party committees) every two years.

I have no doubt many will disagree on this front, but this is not going to undermine American democracy. In fact, in some ways, this will be an improvement. Here’s why:
Donation caps are notoriously bad at limiting the involvement of wealthy people in elections. Donors want to donate. Candidates want to receive. If you erect a wall in between them, money will typically find a way around it. In the vast majority of cases, this is not a criminal enterprise. It simply means that once a donor reaches her contribution limit, she will find another way to get the money to candidates who need it. That could mean contributing to a Super PAC, a 503(c)(4), an independent expenditure committee, etc. That money can still be put to use helping out candidates, but the flow of the money is much less direct and much less transparent.

Most of the time, donors would rather contribute directly to candidates, rather than through these byzantine funding networks, for the simple reason that it’s easier to get credit for the donation that way. And it’s generally in the interests of political observers and watchdogs that these donations go directly from donors to candidates because it makes it so much easier to track what’s going on and keep people accountable.

The Supreme Court’s decision today actually improves this situation marginally. By taking away the aggregate donation limits, it makes it more likely that donations will go directly from the donor to the candidate and that we will have a record of them.

So if you want to lament that the wealthy are too involved and influential in our elections, fine. But just keep in mind that our previous campaign finance laws weren’t doing much to mitigate that.

[Cross-posted at the Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.

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