The big money that flows into American politics is about to get even bigger. It will take time to figure out just how much, though, and how it will affect campaigns.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday did away with more of the rules limiting campaign contributions that were imposed by Congress in the 1970s in response to the Watergate corruption scandal.
A look at the court decision, the old rules, the new rules and the potential impact of the changes.
THE DECISION: The court voted 5-4 to scrap federal limits on the total amount of money that people can give to candidates, political parties and political action committees each election cycle. It’s the latest in a series of rulings chipping away at restrictions on political money.
THE REASON: The court’s five conservative justices said the limits violated the constitutional guarantee of free speech and weren’t needed to prevent corruption.
THE OLD RULES: The sum of each person’s contributions to federal candidates, parties and PACs was limited to $123,200 for the 2013-14 election season, including caps of $48,600 on giving to individual campaigns and $74,600 on giving to political action committees, or PACs. Contributions also were limited to $5,200 per candidate ($2,600 each for the primary and general election campaigns) and $5,000 a year per PAC. The limits go up each election season, to keep pace with inflation.
THE NEW RULES: There are no caps anymore on the overall amounts that contributors can donate to candidates, political parties and PACs. But contributors still are limited to giving $5,200 per candidate and $5,000 per PAC.
THE IMPACT: The super-rich have other ways to spread around more campaign cash. But most people never came close to bumping up against the old limits. Just 644 donors gave the maximum amount in 2012, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
THE IMPLICATIONS: There’s lots of speculation here: More campaign money could end up flowing through political parties rather than outside groups, allowing for more transparency about where money is coming from and ending up, and giving parties greater relevance in elections. More money could end up going to challengers now that rich donors can offer cash to more candidates than in the past. That could increase the number of competitive races around the country. Depending on how the new rules are drafted, the super-rich could be able to channel millions to joint fundraising committees set up by candidates, parties and PACs, giving them outsized influence. Rich people won’t be able to beg off on requests for contributions by claiming they’ve reached their legal limit.
SUPPORTERS SAY: The changes will foster free speech and provide more robust public participation in elections.
OPPONENTS SAY: The changes will open the financial floodgates and give rich people yet more sway in elections.
WHAT NOW: The post-Watergate experience makes it clear that moneyed interests will do their creative best to maximize their influence in elections. It will fall to the Federal Election Commission to figure out how to sync the court ruling and campaign finance regulations.