Campaign Finance Post-McCutcheon

Apr 25, 2014

The April 2 five-four decision of the United States Supreme Court on campaign finance in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission has elicited the predictable polar opposite reactions from commentators.  The decision has been hailed by many as reinforcing the fundamental Constitutional right of free speech and strengthening the role of the parties in the political process.  Conversely, the decision has been vilified in some quarters as giving the wealthy a larger voice in politics than they may already have to the detriment, it is said, of the general public.

McCutcheon involved provisions of federal campaign finance law that set a biennial cap on the total amount of money an individual can contribute to all federal recipients of campaign funds, whether candidates or political party committees.  For donors wealthy enough to be able to contribute to multiple candidates and committees, these provisions effectively limit the candidates and committees these donors can support.  By overturning these provisions, the majority of the Court opened the way for donors to contribute to a variety of candidates and committees at the federal level, while not altering the legal limits applicable to each candidate or committee individually.  Ironically, although the parties - both Democrat and Republican - are presumably happy with this decision, donors may be unhappy because they will no longer have the excuse that they’ve given the aggregate maximum when approached for contributions by party fundraisers.

The current campaign finance system, particularly at the federal level, is a welter of statutes, rules and regulations that have had the effect of strengthening the political power of incumbents by making it more difficult for challengers to raise sufficient sums to overcome the name recognition and other advantages of incumbency in political campaigns.  The same laws have also given rise to the exponential growth of groups operating outside the orbit of these laws - the Super PACs and special interest organizations - that are accountable to no one in the political process, certainly not the candidates themselves.  The growth of these outside groups demonstrates that far from limiting the role of money in political campaigns, the laws on the books have had the reverse effect.

With the entry of Republican Cory Gardner into the race for the U.S. Senate in Colorado, there are predictions that millions of dollars will pour into the state for that election.  Much of that money will, of course, come from individual donors and partisan political committees.  However that money will be matched and probably much more by expenditures by “independent” groups not accountable to either the Republican or the Democratic candidate and responsible in large measure for messages that will distort rather than elucidate the platforms of the candidates.  One of the first salvos of this nature has come from the League of Conservation Voters, a pro-environmental group which is currently mounting a $1 million television campaign against Cory Gardner, accusing him - falsely - of putting oil and gas industry interests above those of the public.  And it’s only April!

As a political party type myself, I see this phenomenon of unlimited and unaccountable expenditures by special interest organizations as a threat to our democracy, particularly when the political parties and the candidates are hampered by laws that restrict the amount of money they can raise.  The candidates and political parties are accountable to the public for their positions and their statements.  Outside organizations appear to be able to attack candidates they don’t like with impunity.  Having said that, I am also fiercely supportive of the right of free speech in the political arena.  It’s too bad that our campaign finance laws have so restricted those rights when it comes to political parties and the candidates themselves.  With McCutcheon, the Supreme Court has taken a step in the direction of leveling the field.


Frieda Wallison is Chair of the Pitkin County Republicans.

Frieda Wallison
Credit Frieda Wallison

A graduate of Smith College and Harvard Law School, she practiced law for more than 30 years in New  York City and Washington, D.C. as a partner in major law firms, before retiring for the good life in the Roaring Fork Valley. Beyond serving as Chair of the Pitkin County Republicans, Wallison is Republican Chair of the Third Congressional District in Colorado and a member of the Colorado Republican Party Executive Committee. She is also the President of the Snowmass/Capitol Creek Caucus and a member of Aspen Rotary.  In her spare time, Wallison is a real estate developer in the mid-valley.  She is married to Peter Wallison, the Arthur F. Burns Fellow in Financial Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and they are parents of three and grandparents of five.

You can contact her at fkwallison@me.com

Her personal Facebook page address is facebook.com/frieda.wallison

You can find out more about the Pitkin County Republicans: http://pitkinpolitics.org/