THE BLOG
10/17/2013 08:37 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2013

New High Court Case Threatens a Citizens United Sequel on Steroids

A key federal campaign finance cap is going wobbly.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court held an oral argument in a new challenge to federal PAC spending limits in a case that could unravel key campaign spending restraints that remain in federal elections and reverberate through Illinois' 2014 general election.

The case, a sequel to Citizens United, McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, sprung from Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, and the Republican National Committee who are challenging the campaign spending limits of $48,600 every two years for individuals' contributions to all federal candidates and $74,600 to political party committees, but not the $2,600 individual cap.

Current aggregate limits cap any one donor to a maximum federal donation of $123,200 in each two- year cycle. Without that overall cap, theoretically, one donor could contribute as much as $3.6 million in one cycle - the maximum to a candidate in 435 House races and 33 Senate races, and the maximum to 50 state parties and all national party groups.

Contribution limits proponents fear that lifting the global caps would swell the amount of cash being funneled to target candidates.

Center for Responsive Politics data reveals that currently PACS, parties, and candidates routinely shuffle money among assortment of corresponding campaigns and committees. In 2012, for example, Democratic state and local parties sent $4.6 million to national party committees, and Republicans shuttled $31.7 million.

President Barack Obama said last week that McCutcheon could undo what remains of campaign finance restrictions.

"The latest case would go even further than Citizens United," he said. "It would say anything goes: there are no rules in terms of how to finance campaigns."

Suburban Cook County election and municipal attorney Michael Del Galdo, who serves as general counsel to multiple suburban Cook County municipalities, including the Town of Cicero, took a front row seat at the high court last Tuesday as the oral argument unfolded and offered a first-hand assessment.

"This case has the potential to blow the doors off federal campaign spending limits, trivializing the Citizens United outcome by comparison and altering the Illinois political landscape in 2014," said Del Galdo, who was sworn in to practice before the Supreme Court by Chief Justice John Roberts before the case's oral argument began.

"The justices' body language and facial expressions that accompanied their comments and questions provided another layer of insight into their thinking," said Del Galdo. "And it is clear from the justices' signals that this decision will be narrowly decided."

Del Galdo, who is the managing partner of the Del Galdo Law Group located in suburban Berwyn, said the removal of the spending caps would complicate Democratic efforts to hold the seats of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and freshmen Congressmen Brad Schneider, Cheri Bustos, Bill Foster, and Bill Enyart.

"Without global contribution limits, the overall Republican money advantage could balloon, eroding the competitive advantage of incumbent Illinois Democrats in federal races," said Del Galdo.

According to Center for Responsive Politic, in 2012, the average winner of a House race spent only $1.5 million. Meanwhile, there were 241,000 donors who contributed more than $2,500 to races, providing a sizable pool of deep-pocketed donors to inject more cash into federal contests.

Del Galdo, who is actively involved in municipal and state legislative campaigns, also fears that a federal tidal wave could swamp local campaigns.

"Bigger waves of federal campaign spending on advertising could suffocate lower-budget, local candidate efforts to broadcast their message," Del Galdo added. "A glut of federal cash could force a strategy rethink for the typical state legislative race heading into the 2014 general election."

The court's decision is expected by the end of June 2014.

Stay tuned.

DavidOrmsby@DavidOrmsby.com

David also edits, with the help of Capitol Fax's Rich Miller, The Illinois Observer: The Insider.