Hugh McQuaid Photo

Activists gathered on the steps of a Hartford federal courthouse Tuesday to talk about a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that could increase the flow of money into politics.

The nation’s high court began hearing oral arguments Tuesday in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Clean elections advocates argue that the case may have the biggest impact on campaign finance law since the 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations, unions, and special interest groups to funnel unlimited funds into political campaigns.

In the McCutcheon case, Shaun McCutcheon, a businessman and major Republican political donor from Alabama, has challenged the current $123,200 cap on the total contributions one individual can make to candidates, political parties, or PACs during an election cycle.

In an opinion piece published Sunday in Politico, McCutcheon said he was limited by the aggregate contributions cap when he was making political donations during the 2010 election cycle. He argued that the total cap does not make sense.

“Somehow, I can give the individual limit, now $2,600, to 17 candidates without corrupting the system. But as soon as I give that same amount to an 18th candidate, our democracy is suddenly at risk. Only politicians in Washington could come up with something so absurd,” McCutcheon wrote.

But activists associated with Connecticut’s labor unions, as well as government watchdog and environmental groups, argued Tuesday that the aggregate spending limit served a valid function in reducing the influence of money in politics.

Lori Pelletier, head of Connecticut AFL-CIO, said even with the current limitations it takes a lot of small donors to equal the political influence of someone who can contribute $123,000. And one large donor is more likely get the attention of elected officials, she said.

“Whether it’s in the House of Representatives or the Senate, are they going to have time to meet with one person or a thousand people? And really that’s what it breaks down to: If I can write a check for $123,000, that is a golden key to that door on that congressional office that can be opened up,” she said. “That’s the problem. Ordinary citizens don’t have the ability to write that check.”

Abe Scarr, director of Connecticut Public Interest Research Group, said the impact of the Citizens United decision could be seen during the 2012 election cycle when 32 “mega donors” and special interest groups contributed as much to the two presidential candidates as the combined contributions of 3.7 million small donors.

If the Supreme Court sides with McCutcheon, Scarr said it will increase the political influence of those few wealthy donors. 

“So now it’s up to the court to decide whether they want to further concentrate the power of a small number of very wealthy individuals. The obvious answer for the court is ‘no,’” he said.

Hugh McQuaid Photo

Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, said the activists who came to the Hartford courthouse Tuesday were trying to raise public awareness of the case. She said there were similar gatherings happening across the country.

“People are concerned about what’s happening in these cases,” Quickmire said. “These are about the corruption of our democracy. People should not be able to buy influence in the way that’s being permitted now, even after Citizens United. This will make it exponentially worse if it happens.”

Quickmire said that Connecticut’s state elections system is better positioned to limit the power of money in elections because of its own limits and public campaign finance system. But the General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy removed some of Connecticut’s restrictions during the last legislative session. Proponents said the changes were necessary because of the impact of the Citizens United decision.