How Much Money Does it Take to Corrupt a Campaign?

Written by Lloyd Leonard, Senior Director of Advocacy, League of Women Voters

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), a case many have dubbed “the next Citizens United.” Why is this case so important? Money. Big money.

If McCutcheon wins this case, donors will be able to give more than $3 million to federal candidates, political committees and parties. Currently, the aggregate total of such gifts is capped at $123,200 — a lot of money, but not $3 million. Remember, in today’s world, more money means more influence, so the aggregate limit is important.

Laying Out the Argument

Predicting the outcome of a case after oral arguments is often a hazardous and error-prone exercise. Nonetheless, it seems that a few things are pretty clear. There are likely four votes to uphold the limits and probably three to knock them down. The likely swing votes are Chief Justice Roberts and, perhaps, Justice Alito, who often sides with Roberts in such cases.

So what did the Chief Justice indicate during oral argument? His questioning and comments focused on whether it might be possible to issue a “split decision” by striking the aggregate limit in some instances but not in others. Here’s how it might work. The Court would invalidate the aggregate limit on contributions to individual candidates. Is it truly more corrupting to give 100 candidates a $2,600 contribution than to give 25 such contributions? Perhaps not, the argument goes. So the Chief could strike down the aggregate limit as it applies to multiple individual gifts.

When it comes to political parties, however, a million dollar gift is corrupting. A political office holder could solicit the gift and the party, and its office holders would be beholden to the donor. So the corrupting influence is pretty clear, and the Chief Justice, given his history of upholding contribution limits generally, could keep the aggregate limit to block huge gifts to political parties.

But here is the critical question: What about other political committees, including those set up by office holders or candidates? In such a case, a huge gift would seem to be highly corrupting. The office holder would be soliciting it, and the candidates to whom he or she distributes it would be beholden both to the solicitor and the donor. Here is where the case likely will be won or lost. What will the Chief Justice decide about political committees, including office holder solicitations for such committees? This is the $3 million question.

Defining Corruption

Another interesting storyline that developed during the oral argument concentrated on the definition of corruption. What, after all, is corruption?

Existing law, following Buckley v. Valeo, recognizes that limitations on political spending implicate First Amendment rights, but that stopping corruption is an important governmental interest that allows limitations on money in politics. The current Roberts-Scalia-Kennedy court has been narrowing the term, making it more and more like bribery rather than influence peddling.

However, there is another view, and Justice Breyer articulated it at the oral argument in McCutcheon. He sees corruption as an issue more like governmental integrity. Political corruption occurs when the integrity of representative government is threatened. For the future of campaign finance reform, it is this line that advocates must follow. It is the overall integrity of government that we worry about, and big money undermines that integrity in a number of ways, not just through clear and unambiguous quid pro quo corruption.

As one might expect, Justice Scalia took the other side. In Citizens United, the Court found that huge “independent” expenditures are not corrupting simply because they are supposedly independent, not linked to a candidate or office holder. As a factual matter this is pretty clearly wrong, but the Supreme Court decides these things, and that was their decision in Citizens United. In the McCutcheon case, Justice Scalia said, well, we allowed huge contributions to independent political committees … shouldn’t we just allow them to all political committees as well? At which point Justice Kagan quipped that perhaps the Court should reconsider its holding in Citizens United. Nice!

Whats Next?

Going forward, there will likely be a continuing battle within the Court over what constitutes corruption. Over the long term this debate will determine the course of campaign finance law. But for now, we wait to see what happens in McCutcheon to see if gifts of more than $3 million from a single donor will be unleashed on our political system.

This post was originally published on the LWV blog.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Robert H.
Robert Hamm4 years ago

ROARS with laughter at Paul. He LOST PERIOD!!!! Get over yourself and your idiotic zealotry. Making excuses for his less makes you look immature and childish. The cfact that he was outspent shows he didnt have the support some of you thought he did. He lost get over it.

Paul B.
Paul B4 years ago

Heavily outspent, Cuccinelli nearly pulls it out. even with heavy guns, Clintons and Obama, it was the ACA that almost spoiled McAuliffe's plans. I feel sorry for VA, for he is not govenor material, a political campaign bundler who was hired by the Clintons to run interference for her come 2016. Out of money the last two weeks, and heavily slandered by the left, Cucinelli did the best he could and still almost won.

Yes big money definitely bought this election, PP, Unions, DNC, and all the pro-left groups contributed heavily, from all over the country, and it worked. So yes you CAN buy elections.

Heather G.
Heather G4 years ago


Paul B.
Paul B4 years ago

Kristin, I agree, but it is the fault of our elected Congressmen who have created the USofCA, Dems and Reps are equally guilty of collusion, corruption and cronyism. Political connections pay big money for big contracts. Jus tlook at all the connected contracts in this administration. the Website development was a crony, most of the green energy investments went to cronies, the drug companies gain great benefits from ObamaCare, and biggest of all is Wall Street who is raking in huge profits off of the Federal Reserve and the printing of money... yes the same people who Obama heavily criticized and said would pay for the economic collapse... well that was until the struck a DEAL and are back in grace, like they ever fell from it except through the hollow words of this WH, and now the main people making huge money.... thanks mostly to Dem collusion with them, not Reps.

Paul B.
Paul B4 years ago

Just ask Cuccinelli how much McAuliffe, a man with no experience, except fundraising for the Clintons, has raised from his corporate cronies in attempt to win the VA election. There is even a huge Democrat from Texas that is funding the Libertarian candidate that Ron Paul says is a phony, just to split the conservative votes.

When Hillary wants something, she will go to ANY lengths to help insure her victory in 2016.

Virginia is a battleground state she would love to have inside influence to win. McAuliffe has no business even running for Governor. It is purely a political ploy to steal the 2016 election.

Lynn C.
Lynn C4 years ago


Bill K.
Bill K4 years ago

Don't you people get it?? $$ is a PERSON now. With citizenship Constitutional rights, but with absolutely no responsibility and with complete immunity. Your GOP & SCOTUS @ work!

Dani C.
Dani C4 years ago

The whole system is corrupt!

B J.
BJ J4 years ago

Money plus power = absolute corruption leading to destruction.