(CBS NEWS) -- In the 2010 Citizens United
case, the Supreme Court did away with the limits on what unions and
corporations can spend on political speech, so long as their money is
spent independently of candidates and campaigns. On Tuesday, the court
will consider rolling back limits on political contributions directly to
candidates and political parties.
The court hears oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission,
which reviews aggregate contributions limits on donations to
candidates, political parties and political action committees (PACs).
The case does not
call into question the maximum amount an individual can donate to a
single candidate or political party in a two-year election cycle --
those limits are $2,600 to a candidate, $32,400 to a national political
party and $5,000 to a political committee. Instead, it considers the
overall limits: An individual may donate a maximum of $48,600 to all
candidates and an overall maximum of $74,600 to PACs and parties.
On one level, the McCutcheon
case is just about a few thousand of the wealthiest individuals in
America, and whether they should be allowed to contribute to as many
campaigns and candidates as they want. In this particular case, it's
about Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, and whether he should be
allowed to donate $2,600 to just 18 candidates in one election year, or
19 or 20, or more.
In an interview with CBS News' Jan
Crawford, McCutcheon acknowledged that contribution limits are designed
to limit political corruption but argued the logic of aggregate limits
"If there is no corruption at 19 [candidates],
there is no corruption at 435," he said. "If my 18th candidate was a
House race in Alabama, then I could not do a 19th candidate -- say, a
Senate race in Louisiana... I have to sit there all next year and do
nothing, and just watch. My free speech is suppressed for the whole year
if I max out this year."
Fred Wertheimer, founder of the nonprofit Democracy 21, defended the
limits, telling Crawford that the ability to financially influence
effectively every race in the nation goes too far.
bottom line is you cannot allow individuals to give, and office holders
to solicit, million-dollar and $2 million contributions without
corrupting our political system and corrupting our democracy," he said.
"The Supreme Court has never said that contributions represent free
speech that cannot be limited."
Beyond its implications
for the wealthy few like McCutcheon, the case could mark a significant
shift in the way the court treats political gifts. If the court did
knock down overall limits, it would be the first chip away at federal
contribution limits since the rationale for such limits was established
40 years ago.
"If you fear deregulated politics, you're
concerned about that," former Federal Election Commission commissioner
Brad Smith, co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics, told
reporters last week. "If you're like us and say there's not much to show
for the regulation we've had since 1974, then we welcome that
Eliminating aggregate limits could set the
stage for striking down all contribution limits. "At that point, we
would be back to the 19th Century and the Robber Baron era," Wertheimer
said, calling the court's eventual decision in McCutcheon "potentially much more dangerous than the Citizens United decision."
Since Citizens United
helped clear the way for super PACs -- which can raise unlimited sums
to spend on political matters independent of the candidates, campaigns
or parties -- there is already an outlet for wealthy individuals who
want to invest in politics. Smith argued that if aggregate limits on
contributions to candidates were removed, people could donate directly
to candidates, rather than through super PACs.
"The more the system is opened up, the better," he said.
Donnelly, executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund, supports
the aggregate limits, arguing to CBSNews.com that the specter of
unlimited direct contributions is more concerning than the influence of
"We can't depend on our democracy working
well because there's a debate between rich people," he said. "If there's
just rich people on the right and on the left fueling all these
campaigns, it narrows the kind of issues our candidates have to think
about... The system already does that enough."
said he is concerned the court could take a middle-ground approach, and
instead of doing away with aggregate limits, rule that the current
limits are too low. If the court took that approach, it would be up to
Congress to set new limits.
"I'm worried that the language they use will be less sweeping than Citizens United
but practically more damaging," he said. "If they say we can have
aggregate limits but these are too low, then I just don't see the
practical ability of Congress to do anything about it -- they can't
agree on the color of the sky."