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Well-heeled Massachusetts political donors will be free to spread their wealth among as many candidates for state and federal office as they wish this year after the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down aggregate federal campaign contribution limits, a ruling that state regulators said would extend to state limits as well.
The decision, heralded as the most significant campaign finance court ruling since the Citizens United decision, touched off a swift rebuke from some members of Congress and from campaign reform advocates who have been fighting to limit the impact of money on politics.
Congressman Joe Kennedy III said Congress should act immediately to address the court ruling’s “damage.”
The change, however, could steer money away from so-called Super PACs that popped up after the Citizens United decision and toward individual candidates and party organizations, a shift that would increase transparency around political giving, according to one expert.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that aggregate limits on political donations violated the constitutional right to free speech. The ruling eliminated the $48,600 cap in federal law on contributions by individuals every two years to candidates for federal office, as well as a separate aggregate cap of $74,600 to political party committees.
Individual contribution limits to any one candidate or party were left unchanged by the ruling.
“We’re still reviewing it to determine what it means for Massachusetts. It’s safe to say however the $12,500 aggregate limit is gone,” said Jason Tait, a spokesman for the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. While the state’s $500 annual contribution limit to any one candidate would not be changed by the ruling, Tait said donors would be free to make maximum contributions to more than just 25 candidates as imposed under the current cap.
Tait said lawyers for OCPF are reviewing and have not yet determined whether the $5,000 aggregate state contribution limit to political parties and city and town party organizations would also be negated by the ruling. If it does apply, donors could be freed to donate up to $5,000 to multiple local and state political party organizations.
Common Cause Massachusetts, one of the leading voices for campaign finance reform in Massachusetts, criticized the decision as one that would open the floodgates wider for money and donors to exert influence on state and national politics.
“This decision will dramatically increase the corrupting influence of big money, here in Massachusetts and across the country,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “Each member of our congressional delegation and every candidate for Congress will now be able to solicit multi-million dollar gifts from ultra-wealthy donors. Common sense tells us that folks who can give that kind of money are going to want something in return.”
Campaign reform advocates are planning a rally on the steps of the State House at 5 p.m. on Wednesday to protest the decision, one of at least 100 events planned around the country in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Rep. Cory Atkins, MASSPIRG Executive Director Janet Domenitz and representatives from the Massachusetts Sierra Club, MassVOTE and Move to Amend are expected to attend.
Kennedy issued a statement in response to the ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.
“America’s political process depends on the voices of many, not the influence of a few,” Kennedy said. “Today’s decision sorely undermines the integrity of our entire system, pushing everyday citizens and small donors towards the sidelines of democracy. Congress should act immediately to mitigate this damage.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, submitted an amicus brief in the case and applauded the ruling.
“The Supreme Court has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a Constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice,” McConnell said in a statement.
The court did not strike down individual contribution limits, he noted, “but it did recognize that it is the right of the individual, and not the prerogative of Congress, to determine how many candidates and parties to support.” He added, “Let me be clear for all those who would criticize the decision: It does not permit one more dime to be given to an individual candidate or a party — it just respects the Constitutional rights of individuals to decide how many to support.”
Raymond La Raja, an associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst, said the ruling could actually be a positive development for those who favor campaign finance reform.
La Raja said lifting the limit on total contributions could steer money away from shadowy Super PACs and into the campaign accounts of candidates and political parties who disclose their donors to the Federal Elections Commissions and the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, thereby increasing transparency.
“The fabric of regulation is already torn. We have all these Super PACs so maybe this will encourage contributions within the system so at least you can connect the dots where the money is coming and going,” La Raja said. “Rich people can spend money. The Supreme Court already said this. They’re already spreading their influence, so I’d rather have it be more accountable and transparent.”
La Raja called the state’s $500 annual campaign contribution limit “ridiculously low,” and said he would advise the Legislature to immediately double or triple the limit to encourage donors to give within the candidate and party structures rather than turning to Super PACs.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker has also criticized the state’s contribution limits for being too low, arguing that the system protects incumbents and makes it particularly hard for Republicans to compete in the heavily Democratic state.
Don Berwick, a Democratic candidate for governor, said he was “deeply concerned” that the decision would give “even more political influence to very few extremely wealthy individuals.”
“This is yet another step in the wrong direction, building on the destructive Citizens United decision, and threatening to undermine the principle of ‘one-person-one-vote.’ With income inequality continuing to grow in this Commonwealth and across the nation, the last thing we need is even more influence concentrated in the hands of the wealthy and well connected. We need to move – quickly – toward repealing Citizens United and implementing publicly financed elections, guaranteeing equal voice for everyone,” Berwick said in a statement.
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