Just who is Shaun McCutcheon, and why does he matter?
McCutcheon is a wealthy electrical engineer from Alabama who owns Coalmont Electrical Development, a general contracting firm that works mainly with energy and mining operations.
He is also a big donor to Republican candidates and causes.
McCutcheon matters because he, along with the Republican National Committee, has challenged a central part of federal election law. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a direct challenge to the aggregate contribution limit that caps what a donor may contribute to federal candidates.
Contribution limits are an important tool that aims to limit government corruption by special interests, and there is longstanding precedent for upholding limits. But under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has already turned much of federal campaign finance law upside down – think back just a few years ago to Citizens United – and it may not be done yet.
ALL SPENDING LAWS UNDER SIEGE
Do you plan to give more than $123,200 in political donations during the 2014 election cycle? Probably not, since that represents double what most of us make in a year. In fact, just over 1,200 Americans are at or near that cap – only four in every million of us.
McCutcheon wants to give more than that limit, arguing that it unconstitutionally restricts his right of free speech under the First Amendment.
Since it is legal to make a contribution of $2,600 per election to a federal candidate, McCutcheon believes that he should be able to make that maximum contribution to an unlimited number of candidates, potentially giving several million dollars directly to candidates in just one election cycle.
He’d also like to make unlimited donations to party committees.
And since McCutcheon is a deep-pocketed and sophisticated political donor, his giving doesn’t have to stop there. He is already free to make unlimited independent expenditures, and so is his company, Coalmont, thanks to Citizens United. He can also make donations to candidates in state races, to political action committees and any number of other legal vehicles for political activity.
But all of that is not enough for McCutcheon and his allies. Despite the rollback of state and federal laws resulting from earlier Roberts court rulings, there is still plenty of campaign finance law standing. McCutcheon v. FEC is one more case in the organized, tenacious effort to dismantle this body of law.
From limits to transparency to public financing, all provisions are under challenge, whether in the courts or in Legislatures.
Maine has a long history of its own organized and tenacious effort – one to reduce the influence of big money in elections and in government.
In 1996, Maine people successfully created the country’s first full public funding system for state offices, the Maine Clean Election Act. In that same referendum, Maine people set reasonable limits for privately funded candidates and implemented provisions to ensure that information about campaign fundraising and spending would be transparent and easy to access.
Maine people know that the First Amendment doesn’t begin and end with the idea of unlimited political cash.
Mainers have worked hard to make sure that all voices are heard in elections, that ordinary people are able to participate in every aspect of elections, and that candidates are able to run for office without relying on wealthy, self-interested donors.
RULES PRESERVE EQUAL ACCESS
Maine’s campaign finance laws are based on a larger view of free speech. Here, the First Amendment means that voters hear diverse views and have a choice of candidates that is not limited to the wealthy or those who are willing to engage in a grueling and demeaning money chase. Much like the nation’s founders, Mainers value a marketplace of ideas that is open to all and dislike the idea of special influence for any elite group.
Roberts court rulings have already had a direct effect on Maine law, most notably in the Arizona case that overturned Clean Election matching funds. Matching funds allowed participating candidates to compete against well-funded opponents and respond to outside attacks. The loss of this component has still not been remedied by the lawmakers in Augusta.
If the court falls for McCutcheon’s self-interested arguments, Maine will lose its aggregate limit, too.
That is the wrong direction for Maine, and it will be even worse for the majority of states that don’t offer public financing as an alternative to the private-money system.
The stakes are high. To all who value a government that is truly of, by and for the people, McCutcheon matters.
Nick Nyhart is president of Public Campaign, and Andrew Bossie is executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
— Special to the Press Herald