Supreme Court Takes Another Whack at Campaign Spending Limits

Supreme Court
The exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington March 5, 2014. Gary Cameron/Reuters

Four years after the Supreme Court knocked down limits on third-party political spending in the famous Citizens United case, the court has dealt a second blow to campaign finance limits by striking down a key limit on direct campaign donations.

Before Wednesday's ruling, wealthy campaign donors were limited in two important ways: a base limit dictated a maximum amount they could give to each campaign or party committee and an aggregate limit placed the upper bounds of how much a donor could give in total. Because the aggregate limit ($123,200 for the 2013-2014 cycle) was significantly smaller than the sum of giving the maximum amount to every campaign (about $3.6 million), that limit prohibited wealthy donors from giving the maximum amount to any number of candidates. Until today.

On Wednesday, the five conservative justices struck down the aggregate limit, opening the door to wealthy donors giving significantly more to parties and campaigns. The four liberal justices dissented.

Campaign finance advocates believe today's decision, McCutcheon v. FEC, is a travesty, partly because they fear that this is just one more step toward eliminating campaign finance restrictions all together. They also condemn the outsized political influence of wealthy donors, which the new ruling will only exacerbate by allowing wealthy donors to give more money.

"The Roberts Court has exponentially increased the already-significant political influence of the very richest while further undermining the influence of the overwhelming majority of Americans," J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Legal Center, a nonprofit focused on money in politics, said in a statement Wednesday.

"The Court's decision today is a body blow to the principle that our democracy is a self-participatory one, where 'We the People' get to decide who represents us. Instead, it's now 'We the Wealthy,'" he said.

Defenders of the aggregate limits believe that political parties and campaigns will abuse the absence of this overall limit. Essentially, parties can reshuffle money so that cash given to candidates across the board can be sent to the party's top priority races. In other words, once the money is in the system, the base limits can largely be circumvented. But in his opinion Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts said Federal Election Commission regulations meant the threat of circumvention was no longer a serious problem.

Conservatives cheered the court's opinion, including the Republican National Committee (RNC), which was a party to the case.

"I am proud that the RNC led the way in bringing this case and pleased that the Court agreed that limits on how many candidates or committees a person may support unconstitutionally burden core First Amendment political activities," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. "When free speech is allowed to flourish, our democracy is stronger."

The RNC hopes the decision will have an immediate effect on the number of donors to campaigns, parties and political action committees in this year's midterm elections.

The Club for Growth, an outside spending group that supports conservative Republican candidates, was also enthusiastic about the decision.

"This is a great day for the first amendment, and a great day for political speech," said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. "With Citizens United and now McCutcheon, the Supreme Court has continued to restrict the role of the federal government in limiting and regulating speech. We hope further efforts to increase the ability of citizens to participate in our democracy are also successful."

If there is a silver lining for campaign finance law advocates, it's that the Supreme Court didn't go even further and jeopardize the base limits. Advocates feared the court would address those restrictions, which set the upper bounds for how much an individual can give to a particular campaign, political action committee, and to national and state political parties. But Roberts didn't go that far, and at least for now, these base limits appear safe.