A new report analyzing the policy implications of the Supreme Court's biggest campaign finance case of the year, McCutcheon v. FEC, suggests that the controversy surrounding the decision is severely overblown.
Prior to the case, few people seemed to care about, or even be aware of, aggregate contribution limit laws, which limit how much individuals can contribute not to one candidate, PAC, or party, but to all candidates, all PACs, and all parties combined over a two-year period.
Despite the law's obscurity, the Court's decision that the federal aggregate limits are unconstitutional provoked all the usual outrage against a First Amendment victory - hyperbolic condemnations, hysterical political leaders, and Left-stream media hyperventilation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wailed that the McCutcheon ruling “further drowns the voices of working Americans.” The Washington Post published a barrage of excited opinion pieces slamming the decision, including Ruth Marcus accusing the Court of “seemingly deliberate obtuseness to the real world of campaign contributions,” Katrina vanden Heuvel comparing the Court to “a blowtorch, searing a hole in the fabric of our fragile democracy,” and E.J. Dionne throwing in the towel on our republic altogether and declaring “send in the oligarchs.”
From the sounds of it, society should have migrated to an underground bunker by now. But how do aggregate limit regulations really function in practice? Did the Supreme Court take us from the world’s greatest democracy to something more akin to the world of the Hunger Games by striking the federal aggregate limit down?
No, the McCutcheon decision does not herald the end of days, according to evidence from the 50 states. The wild speculation looks downright silly once you know that only 9 states have aggregate limits like the federal limit the Court struck down.
Another 10 states have limits that function somewhat like an aggregate limit. In the other 31 states, no such limits exist, meaning that citizens in those states have had the ability to contribute to as many candidates or groups as they wish for years.
If the end of aggregate limits is the demise of democracy, there should be a pretty glaring difference in corruption rates or the quality of government management between the minority of states with aggregate limits and the majority of states without.
So the Center for Competitive Politics compared all 19 states with some form of aggregate or similar limit laws with their public corruption rate and good governance grade from the Pew Center on the States.
The results are grim for the limit, and bright for unfettered free speech: There is no correlation between these limits and corruption, or between the limits and quality of government management.
In fact, eight of the 10 least-corrupt states in the country lack aggregate limit regulations. Likewise, the nine best-governed, states according to Pew, have no aggregate limits. Of course, the mere fact that it is not common knowledge which states have aggregate limits should be a telling clue that these regulations are not the anti-corruption bulwark that the hysterics want you to believe.
Because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcheon, state aggregate limits are on tenuous constitutional ground. Seven states — Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Wisconsin — have already said they will no longer enforce their aggregate limits.
Minnesota has seen its aggregate-like limit enjoined in court, and Rhode Island and Wyoming have green-lighted legislative action to repeal their aggregate limits. Citizens in these states should rest comfortably knowing that 31 other states suffer no ill effects from permitting individuals to support and associate with as many candidates as they wish.
Simply put, there is no evidence that the aggregate limits did anything to improve government or fight corruption. They simply prevented individuals from supporting as many candidates as they like, with the potential result of donors choosing to give to incumbents and cut off support for challengers with a lower chance of victory. A campaign finance restriction that doesn’t fight corruption, but does aid incumbents? Surprise, surprise.
There are a lot of problems emanating from our nation’s capital, but the victory for First Amendment protections found in the McCutcheon decision is hardly worthy of the doom and gloom coming from self-interested naysayers. On the contrary, it is a welcome recognition that individuals, not the government, get to choose who they associate with.Luke Wachob is the McWethy Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics.