As the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday on a challenge to a long-standing restriction on campaign contributions, a small knot of protesters stood outside a federal courthouse in Hartford, decrying big money in politics.
Fran Goldstein, a Common Cause member who drove to the courthouse on a 106-mile round trip from Weston, agreed with the message and was ready to answer a call to action, if only the labor and advocacy groups organizing the protest could articulate one.
“What can the people of Connecticut do?” Goldstein asked. “What do you want them to do?”
No one had a good answer.
The protest, one of many held around the nation, was directed at the High Court. But the participants acknowledged that their raised voices could barely be heard over the din of passing midday traffic on Main Street, much less in Washington.
Connecticut’s voluntary system of publicly financing state campaigns in return for strict spending and contribution limits is not directly challenged by the case, but the system could become less attractive if the court loosens restrictions on private funds.
An element of the case, Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee v. the Federal Election Commission, is what deference the court will show to Congress and the political process in setting the rules of campaigning. Democrats oppose McCutcheon's challenge, while the GOP establishment supports it.
The court’s underlying message since its 2010 decision in Citizens United is that money equates to free speech, and the court of Chief Justice John Roberts is unafraid to make wholesale changes in a federal regulatory structure crafted in 1971.
“We’re here today to stop the next Citizens United. The last thing we need is more big money flooding into our politics,” said Abe Scarr, the executive director of Connecticut Public Interest Research Group, or ConnPIRG. “We urge the United States Supreme Court to stop handing over our democracy to special interests and wealthy donors.”
Citizens United opened the door to unlimited independent expenditures by corporations, unions and others on campaigns, but it left intact limits on contributions made directly to campaigns.
Under current law, donors to federal campaigns can give a maximum of a $2,600 for each election. In Connecticut, that often means a maximum of $7,800, since there can be three phases to a campaign, and all are considered separate elections under FEC rules: a nominating convention, party primary and general election.
Donors also can give a maximum of $32,400 to a national political party in a calendar year.
McCutcheon, a wealthy businessman from Birmingham, Ala., is challenging a lesser-known restriction: a limit on aggregate contributions of $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to all PACS and parties, for a total of $123,200.
“Somehow, I can give the individual limit, now $2,600, to 17 candidates without corrupting the system,” McCutcheon wrote in an op-ed published by the website Politico. “But as soon as I give the same amount to an 18th candidate, our democracy is suddenly at risk. Only politicians in Washington could come up with something so absurd.”
(His math is slightly off. Giving the maximum to a 19th candidate would put him over the $48,600 aggregate limit to candidates.)
If the aggregate limit was lifted, a contributor who gave the maximum to every eligible campaign and committee could donate a total of $3.5 million every two years.
In a brief supporting McCutcheon, the National Republican Congressional Committee said $3.5 million divided among hundreds of candidates is less than it seems, since total spending on federal campaigns exceeded $7 billion last year.
But defenders of limits on campaign contributions said the bigger danger of the McCutcheon case is that the court, as it is being urged in a brief filed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will strike down even the limits on direct contributions to campaigns.
Many of the protesters outside the courthouse in Hartford Tuesday represented groups that have filed briefs opposing McCutcheon and McConnell. They included Common Cause, the AFL-CIO, SEIU and the Communications Workers of America.
“They call it freedom of speech. It’s not freedom of speech. It’s the best speech money can buy,” said Lori Pelletier, the newly elected leader of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. “We urge the Supreme Court to remember they are supposed to serve the people, not the rich people.”
Standing off to the side was Michael J. Brandi, the general counsel and executive director of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which oversees state campaign finance laws and administers the state’s system of publicly financing campaigns.
The state legislature amended the state’s campaign finance laws last year in reaction to Citizens United. After seeing a billionaire make last-minute expenditures on mail and commercials against Democratic incumbents, the legislature tried to offset unlimited independent expenditures by allowing state political parties a freer hand in raising money and spending in support of candidates.
Any major decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on campaign finance sends out ripples, Brandi said.
“This is another potential Citizens United type decision. Our staff is following the case closely. We’re interested in hearing people talk about it,” Brandi said. “This has the potential to once again put huge dents in campaign finance law, and we’re going to continue to monitor it.”
The state’s public financing law has survived court scrutiny, though not without changes. The original law provided a $3 million general election grant to gubernatorial candidates, with up to another $3 million available based on spending by a non-participating candidate.
But a federal court ruled that supplemental grants triggered by an opponent’s spending were unconstitutional. The General Assembly responded in 2010 by doubling the general-election grant to $6 million.