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Thursday, May 23, 2024
HomeNewsUSSupreme Court Strikes Down Aggregate Campaign Contribution Limits In 5 – 4 Decision

Supreme Court Strikes Down Aggregate Campaign Contribution Limits In 5 – 4 Decision

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supreme courtIn a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court justices Wednesday overturned the aggregate limits on campaign contributions to candidates, political parties and political action committees, ruling that Americans have a right to give the legal maximum to candidates for Congress and president. Now, individual citizens will no longer have to worry that they will violate the law when they bump up against a limit on all contributions, which was set at $123,200 for 2013 and 2014. That includes a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion for McCutcheon v. FEC:

To put it in the simplest terms, the aggregate limits prohibit an individual from fully contributing to the primary and general election campaigns of ten or more candidates, even if all contributions fall within the base limits Congress views as adequate to protect against corruption. The individual may give up to $5,200 each to nine candidates, but the aggregate limits constitute an outright ban on further contributions to any other candidate (beyond the additional $1,800 that may be spent before reaching the $48,600 aggregate limit). At that point, the limits deny the individual all ability to exercise his expressive and associational rights by contributing to someone who will advocate for his policy preferences. A donor must limit the number of candidates he supports, and may have to choose which of several policy concerns he will advance—clear First Amendment harms that the dissent never acknowledges.

It is no answer to say that the individual can simply contribute less money to more people. To require one person to contribute at lower levels than others because he wants to support more candidates or causes is to impose a special burden on broader participation in the democratic process.

Their decision does not overturn limits on individual contributions to candidates for president or Congress, which are currently set at $2,600 an election.

Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the ruling of the case, but authored a separate decision that he would have gone a step further, wiping away all contribution limits.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the liberal dissenters, took the unusual and somewhat dramatic step of reading a summary of his opinion from the bench.

Congress enacted the limits in the wake of Watergate-era abuses to discourage big contributors from trying to buy votes with their donations and to restore public confidence in the campaign finance system. However, Democrats hoped to protect the status quo because their donor base — including unions and trial attorney organizations — have a unique ability to skirt the rules, placing Republicans at a fundraising disadvantage they have had to deal with for decades.

Yet in a series of rulings in recent years, the Roberts court has struck down provisions of federal law aimed at limiting the influence of individual donors, claiming them to be what they are to many Americans, an unconstitutional violation on our First Amendment right to free speech.

In 2010, in another 5 to 4 decision in the Citizens United case, the court ruled that corporations and labor unions are equally free to spend as much as they want on campaign advocacy, as long as it is independent of candidates and their campaigns. That decision did not affect contribution limits to individual candidates, political parties and political action committees.

Case Background

Republican activist Shaun McCutcheon of Hoover, Ala., the national Republican party and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky challenged the overall limits on what contributors may give in a two-year federal election cycle. The total is $123,200, including a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates, for 2013 and 2014.

Limits on individual contributions, which are currently $2,600 per election to candidates in Congress, were not at issue in the case.

McCutcheon gave the symbolically significant $1,776 to 15 candidates for Congress and wanted to give the same amount to 12 others. But doing so would have put him in violation of the cap.

Nearly 650 donors contributed the maximum amount to candidates, PACs and parties in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Though it is unclear exactly what the impact of the ruling will be on future election cycles, it is likely that the influence of PACs will be reduced to some degree. No longer will individuals have to donate to PACs who support their candidate if they would rather donate directly to a candidate, themselves.

The court did not heed warnings from Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. and advocates of campaign finance limits that donors would be able to funnel large amounts of money to a favored candidate in the absence of the overall limit.

The Republicans also called on the court to abandon its practice over nearly 40 years of evaluating limits on contributions less skeptically than restrictions on spending.

The differing levels of scrutiny have allowed the court to uphold most contribution limits, because of the potential for corruption in large direct donations to candidates. At the same time, the court has found that independent spending does not pose the same risk of corruption and has applied a higher level of scrutiny to laws that seek to limit spending.

Written by

Laura Lee Baris is the Assistant Editor at People's Pundit Daily (PPD) and the Producer of "Inside the Numbers" with the People's Pundit. Laura covers politics, entertainment, culture and women's issues. She is also married to the People's Pundit, Richard D. Baris, and a mother to their two beautiful children.

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