McCutcheon ruling leaves room for legislative action

Gridlock makes intervention unlikely

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For those riled by Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lifted limits on aggregate contributions, there was something of a silver lining — the court said Congress or the Federal Election Commission can take steps that might lessen the impact of the expected increase in contributions on the political system.

For example, regulators could limit the size of joint fundraising committees, which would address one of the chief complaints levied by critics of the ruling.

“We are encouraged the court encourages us to take regulatory action and we hope to work with our colleagues” to do so, FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, told the Center for Public Integrity Thursday after an agency meeting.

But given the deep partisan divide in Congress and the FEC’s tendency to deadlock on even minor issues, chances that new regulations related to the decision will be implemented are pretty slim.

While the three Democratic commissioners may push for changes such as increasing disclosure requirements, the FEC’s three Republicans are expected to support nothing more than matching the agency’s rules about aggregate limits to what’s explicitly laid out in the McCutcheon v. FEC decision.

Republican FEC Chairman Lee Goodman said he’s still assessing what, if anything, the FEC is “obligated” to do based on the ruling. But conforming the FEC’s rules on aggregate limits to agree with the ruling may not be needed, Goodman said.

The Supreme Court struck down overall limits on contributions, allowing people to donate to as many candidates and parties as they want. Individual contributions will still be capped.

Congress could create restrictions on transfers among candidates and political committees, limit the size of joint fundraising committees and beef up existing earmarking rules requiring added disclosure when a donor makes a contribution for a specific candidate through another person or group, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

Supporters of overall limits have argued they can help ensure campaign contributors don’t skirt rules limiting individual donations to candidates. Earmarking rules address that concern, Roberts wrote, and could be strengthened by requiring political action committees to support a certain number of candidates to prevent the groups from devoting too much of their money to a single candidate.

Vice Chairman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, said she hopes the commission can do something to soften the blow from McCutcheon but the odds are it won’t reach a consensus.

Some legislators are more hopeful. Hours after the Supreme Court's decision, U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, introduced legislation requiring contributions of at least $1,000 be reported within 48 hours to the FEC. Companion legislation is expected in the U.S. House of Representatives as well.

Meanwhile, Weintraub and Ravel issued a joint statement Wednesday criticizing the ruling: “It amplifies the voices of the few to the detriment of the many."

“At a time when average citizens believe that they are shut out of the political process, we are disappointed that the Court has instead magnified the influence of a tiny minority of wealthy players,” they wrote. “We hope that Congress and our colleagues will take the Court’s suggestions seriously and join us in enacting new measures to ensure adequate disclosure and secure the integrity of our campaign finance system.”

Michael Beckel contributed to this report.

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