April 3, 2013; Washington Post, “The Fix”

The Supreme Court has struck again. In McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission, the Roberts court has struck down the limit on the aggregate campaign contributions that an individual—say, a public-spirited Las Vegas casino magnate like Sheldon Adelson—might give to political candidates and political party committees. Caps on what the likes of Adelson might give to any one candidate and party committee remain in place, but the cumulative caps disappear.

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza neatly describes what Roberts and his colleagues have undone in McCutcheon. Prior to the decision, someone like Adelson might donate to a joint fundraising committee, which would be capped on how many individual candidates (still “maxed out” at $2,600 per candidate) and party committees it could support through Adelson’s check. Now, although the maximum limits per candidate and per committee are still capped, Adelson’s money can go to an unlimited number of them. Adelson, worth billions, could in theory max out his support for every Republican congressional and senate candidate in the county under the loosened restrictions of McCutcheon.

In the past, party committees such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Committee, and the Democratic National Committee would compete with each other for the $32,400 that someone like Adelson could contribute to party committees (well, Adelson wouldn’t be on the Democratic side, but you know what we mean). Now, post-McCutcheon, a rich donor could hand out lots of $32,400 checks to lots of national party committees. Since there are relatively few donors who max out their national party committee contributions, the role of someone like Adelson becomes hugely important. In addition, contributions to multiple national party committees, donors like Adelson are now freed from aggregate federal limits on contributions to state parties; Adelson could give $10,000 to every state republican party due to McCutcheon.

Now that McCutcheon does away with aggregate limits on contributions to multiple candidates and party committees, expect the next step in this purported march of freedom of speech to be a challenge to the specific caps on donations to individual candidates and party committees. Their problem is going to be that without aggregate limits, the likes of Sheldon Adelson won’t be able to say that they’ve hit their campaign finance contribution limits. For Adelson, it’s no problem, given his billions, but there will be other rich donors who are likely to discover that McCutcheon will open the door for incessant requests for campaign contributions.

If you think it was unseemly for potential Republican presidential candidates such as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and John Kasich to show up at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s meeting at Adelson’s Venetian Resort and Hotel and grovel for Adelson’s potential support—the press called it the “Adelson primary”—the McCutcheon decision will only exacerbate the situation. In the two days that followed the Adelson primary, Forbes reports that Adelson’s wealth increased by more than $2 billion due to strong revenues in his Macau gambling operations. McCutcheon basically frees Adelson to become like or perhaps even surpass the Koch brothers as the primary financial power broker in the Republican Party.

Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam spent $93 million in campaign contributions plus dark money donations in the 2012 presidential election cycle. It is next to unimaginable what Adelson might do now that he has no aggregate limits to deal with in his support for individual candidates and party committees. For democracy, this is nuts.—Rick Cohen