My name is Shaun McCutcheon. And despite what you may have read, I am not plotting the downfall of our fine REPUBLIC. But I am the lead plaintiff in a 1st Amendment case going before the United States Supreme Court—which is something a businessman from Alabama never expects to be. Let me tell you how this all came about, and in the process I’ll explain what this case is about—and what it’s not about.
During the last election cycle from 2011-2012, I was donating money to various candidates for federal office and some partycommittees. I’m a conservative activist, and proud of it, so it’s only natural that I’d want to help fund candidates who share my political views.
Well, I was in for a surprise when one of the party committees I support contacted me to inform me that I was nearing the limit for how much I could give to them or anyone else. I had never heard of these limits so I was shown a chart about campaign giving that was so complicated I could barely make any sense of it. The bottom line, though, was this:
If you support a candidate, you can give his campaign a certain amount of money – that’s your constitutional right to free speech and free association. And a limit on that is a good thing – it at least tries to prevent candidates from being bought and sold (though that happens every day in DC!). But what doesn’t make any sense is that you can only give that amount of money to a few candidates, because somehow my giving money to Martha Roby of AL could corrupt Allen West of Florida. That’s just nutty, but that’s what the powers-that-be want: to prevent folks who want to get involved from having the same ability to get involved and support candidates that big Union PACs have.
My case is only about that “aggregate limit” – the amount I can give to all candidates combined. I don’t have any problem with how much the law says you can give to individual candidates and committees, which is presently $2600. Congress and the courts have decided that amount is so low that it does not pose any risk of corrupting candidates or our political system. But what makes no sense to me whatsoever—and, in fact, is an assault on our Constitutionally guaranteed Freedom of Speech—is the total limits on giving to all the candidates and committees of your choice.
Here’s how absurd those limits are: Under the present law, I can give the legal amount—that $2600—to up to 17 candidates; but if I give that same legal amount to an 18th candidate, I’m somehow corrupting the system. Really? If you reach that magical number you are suddenly triggering all sorts of corruption? Only politicians in Washington could come up with that. The fact is, if $2600 individual contributions to 17 individual candidates corrupt any one of them, than it can’t possibly corrupt an 18 candidate…or 28th …or 38th.
The only real corruption here is what these aggregate limits are doing to our most precious Constitutional rights. The First Amendment guarantees our freedom of speech and our freedom of association—and from the earliest days of our country, “We the People” have been able to express those freedoms by contributing money to the candidates of our choice. The Constitution makes equally clear that our individual rights are sacred, and that government is here to serve the American people and not the other way around. When there is no compelling reason to limit an individual’s rights then they must be protected, first and foremost. These aggregate limits do not address any realistic risk of corruption, and so they are merely taking away my rights—and yours—as American citizens.
That’s more than enough reason right there to overturn the legislation. But let me also show you just how flimsy and self-defeating the arguments are for upholding the aggregate limits.
The same people who decry the total amount of money I can spend in support of candidates also denounce the money being injected into our politics by PACs and SuperPACs. Well, here’s a reality alert. PACs came into being only after the campaign finance limits imposed during the 1970s—growing from about 600 PACs to 4000 by the mid-1980s. People who haven’t been allowed to give to all the individual candidates and campaigns they want have done the next available thing—they’ve given to PACs. In one fell swoop, supporters of campaign finance laws managed to supercharge the growth of PACs while taking away the ability of every American to directly support the candidates who would actually take office in their service. PAC decision making – especially by big corporate and union PACs – is less transparent and less accountable to any individual – they raise their money from small groups – than candidates and party committees are to the general public of their donors —and isn’t a goal of campaign finance reform greater transparency and accountability?
By the way, I am not against PACs or SuperPACs—in fact, I helped found the “Conservative Action Fund” in order to help promote the issues that are important to me. PACs have their useful functions and I’m all for people donating to them if they’d like. But it’s not right that our system is pushing people to donate to PACs when they’d prefer to give directly to as many candidates as they’d like. Get rid of aggregate limits and you’ll not only empower the American people, but lessen the influence of PACs in ways that will benefit our political system.
What about the argument we hear that, if the total limits are done away with, political candidates will start soliciting seven-figure checks through “Joint Fundraising Committees?” That argument is such a stretch that, as soon as you really examine it, it turns to vapor. Basically, it requires two outlandish hypotheticals. The first is that many hundreds of candidates for the Senate and House would be part of the same Joint Fundraising Committee. That never happens and it won’t happen because those committees are far too impractical and unwieldy if they’re serving more than a handful of campaigns.
The second hypothetical is that an individual donor plans to contribute to every candidate they prefer in all the races across the country. Now who is so stupid as to give money to candidates who don’t have a chance of winning? That takes away a huge chunk of races right there.
So supporters of the total limits can talk breathlessly about 7-figure checks—but the rest of us shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for those mega-donations. My suggestion is this: If you want to limit the hard dollars a candidate can solicit, do it with new rules that speak directly to that. But don’t take away a donor’s freedom of speech in order to prevent a problem that doesn’t exist now and is far-fetched to begin with.
And what about the impact of aggregate limits on the competitiveness of races? They’re helping to make them uncompetitive by adding to the advantages that incumbents already have. Every American should be alarmed that about 90% of incumbents win re-election, time and time again. It’s no huge surprise when you consider that about half of an incumbent’s staff typically works on the re-election campaign in some capacity or other—in other words, the taxpayers are already helping fund their campaign. Add in the free media that an incumbent naturally gets and you have quite an uphill battle for any challenger.
What further disadvantage can we give to those challengers? How about limiting the amount of money they can get from donors as they go up against the massive war chests compiled by incumbents? Or how about tilting the giving to unaccountable PACs, leaving donors to wonder if the candidates they like will get any of their money? That’s a legitimate worry, by the way, when you consider that PACs give up to 85% of their money to incumbents. They like to bet on sure winners, after all. Without a doubt, aggregate limits are making our elections less competitive, and that can’t possibly be good for our democracy.
I could go on with more reasons for bringing this challenge all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but I think I’ve made my case already. I realize that by taking on the aggregate limits, I’m automatically a villain to hyper-partisan journalists and special interest advocates. I’m sure Oliver Stone is just salivating to turn this case into one of his fantasy films about good and evil.
Of course, this is what ideologues do—create caricatures and villains in order to blur the truth and spin the story their way. Today I wanted to sweep away all that spin and get us focused on some clear and compelling facts.
I will have succeeded if you leave here today understanding this: Getting rid of the aggregate limits is not about corrupting democracy—it is about practicing democracy. This case is about freedom—your freedom and my freedom to express ourselves openly and fully within our political system. And if there is one thing that we Americans believe with all our hearts, it is that freedom never corrupts.