McCutcheon v. FEC: Once Again the Supreme Court Holds Democracy in its Hands

Media Contacts

Statement of Janet Domenitz, MASSPIRG, and Pam Wilmot, Common Cause Massachusetts


Today the United States Supreme Court takes up a case that, however decided, will have a tremendous impact on our democracy. Common Cause Massachusetts and MASSPIRG, and scores of others representing citizens from all corners of the state and the nation, urge the Supreme Court to stop handing our democracy over to special interests and wealthy campaign donors, and we call on our state and federal elected officials to take action to amplify the voices of ordinary citizens in the political process.

Three and a half years ago, in January 2010,  the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United v. FEC, bursting the one hundred year old dam that prevented corporate spending in our elections, thereby allowing corporations to drown out the voices of regular Americans.

In 2012, we saw the results of that decision, as unprecedented amounts of political money were spent, well over $7 billion, coming from an astoundingly small group of corporations and individuals. In fact, in 2012, 32 of the highest spending megadonors spent the same amount of money on the elections as every single small donor to Obama and Romney combined. To repeat: that’s 32 donors to super PACs matching the gifts of over 3.7 million everyday Americans.

Today the Court will hear oral arguments in McCutcheon versus the Federal Elections Commission, and begin the process of deciding whether or not to give big money donors even more power to make enormous political contributions. The plaintiffs in the case are asking the Supreme Court to lift aggregate contribution limits, or the overall limits on what donors can give to all candidates and parties in a federal election cycle, a limit which already very few people can afford. Right now the limit is set at $123,200 for the 2014 cycle – that’s about 240% of the median household income in the U.S. In 2012, only 1,219 donors came within 10% of that limit.

If the limit is lifted, donors would be able to give up to $3.6 million per party. New research from U.S. PIRG and Demos estimated that if the limit had not been in place in 2012, the 1,219 donors would have contributed 150% of what all small donors gave to Obama and Romney. The report also estimates that lifting the limit would mean an additional $1 billion in campaign contributions from the wealthiest donors over the next four election cycles.

With McCutcheon, it is now up to the Court whether to further hand over the power to fund political campaigns and consequently to influence elections and policymaking to the hands of an extremely small number of wealthy individuals.

The right decision for the Supreme Court is to stop the sale of democracy to the highest bidder. The American public overwhelmingly opposes a campaign finance system that allows special interests this type of improper influence. Such a system runs contrary to the founding principles of this nation.

Americans’ confidence in Congress is at a historic low in large part because they see their representatives as more responsive to big money donors than to regular voters. In fact, studies have shown that government really is more responsive to the policy preferences of large donors than the American public, and that the policy preferences of the wealthy are very different than those of the general public.

The improper influence of money on government is blocking progress on real issues that affect our lives. The Court should not make matters worse by allowing even more big money into politics. After all, in a democracy, the size of your wallet shouldn’t determine the strength of your voice or your right to representation.  

Regardless of the Court’s decision in today’s case, it is clearly time for our state and federal representatives to take up the challenge of reclaiming our democracy. Wealthy campaign donors already wield enormous political power; a Court decision in favor of McCutcheon will only make matters worse.  

Today, we urge our members of Congress and our state legislature to create a small donor empowerment program, with a tax credit for small contributions to encourage more participation and matching funds for candidates that actively seek out funds from a broad swath of their constituents. Such a measure would counteract big money in elections by amplifying the voice of the American public and take us one step closer to ensuring a government of, by, and for the people. Congress should also propose and the state legislature should ratify a constitutional amendment authorizing Congress and the states to place limits on expenditures from “independent” political organizations.

We also urge our state and federal lawmakers to put an end to dark money in politics. Voters have a right to know who is funding political campaigns and that right is currently consistently thwarted by special interest hiding their real influence in our political system. Both the Massachusetts legislature and Congress are considering versions of the Disclose Act. These should be passed immediately.