The next Citizens United could affect campaign spending in the states

September 24, 2013

Citizens United President David Bossie, right, meets with reporters outside the Supreme Court in 2010 after the court ruled. (AP/Lauren Victoria Burke)

In two weeks, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in what many describe as the next Citizens United and the outcome could have major implications for campaign contributions at the state level.

What’s at stake in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission — for which oral arguments are scheduled on Oct. 8 — is the limit to individual political spending. The federal government sets separate limits for each election cycle on how much an individual can give to candidates, party committees and political action committees. But it also currently limits overall spending to $123,200. It’s that overall limit that the McCutcheon fight is about. Proponents say it prevents corruption; opponents say it limits speech.

“When you have somebody writing a one, two or three million dollar check that greatly increases opportunities for corruption,” says Lawrence Norden, a deputy director at the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, which filed a brief in the case supporting the limit.

But critics of the aggregate contribution limit say individual limits — such as the $2,600 cap on donations to a federal candidate or candidate committee per election — already provide that protection.

“We’re not challenging — and the plaintiff in McCutcheon is not challenging — any of the individual contribution limits,” says Rick Esenberg, a Marquette University Law School professor and president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which filed a brief opposing the limit. Why, they ask, is it OK to donate $2,600 to 18 campaigns, but not 19? The case was brought by the Republican National Committee and Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman and conservative activist.

At the federal level only a small group — 646 individuals — bumped up against that aggregate limit during the 2012 election cycle, according to The Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets blog. But spending limits in a handful of states are lower, meaning that if they fall money could come flowing in.

While McCutcheon only affects the federal limit, experts are watching it closely and many on both sides believe the state limits either won’t survive or would become very vulnerable if the federal cap is nullified.

“If the federal limit falls, I think the states are likely to fall, too,” says Lawrence Norton, co-chairman of the political law practice at Venable and a former general counsel of the FEC. If the Supreme Court rules against the limits, it will likely do so in a way that affects those state caps, he says. In a February blog post, Norton identified roughly 10 states with state-level spending limits.

The Center for Competitive Politics, which filed a brief on behalf of McCutcheon puts the number of states with limits even higher at 13. Still, they argue, the majority of states have no cap and are doing fine. And, besides, Citizens United opened the floodgates for unlimited independent corporate political spending, so removing the aggregate limit for individuals acts as a counterbalance, they and others argue.

But fans of the limit couldn’t disagree more.

“As bad as Citizens United was, I think this would be much worse,” says Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the Maryland executive director of Common Cause, a nonprofit active on campaign-finance issues.

It’s true that money already makes its way into politics as outside political spending. But, supporters of the limit like Bevan-Dangel say, as odious as they may find that at least such spending is a step removed. If the Supreme Court nixes the aggregate limit and state limits fall as well, money will have a more direct path to candidates, they argue.

Removing such aggregate limits would change the nature of the donor-politician relationship, too, fans of the limit argue. Should Maryland’s contribution cap fall, for example, Bevan-Dangel expects a huge influx of money to local races: “it’s going to be a real game-changer.”

The result may not be certain, but the future of state limits — and their ability to set such limits — may hang in the balance.

(CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly cited the number of campaign donations that would exceed FEC limits. It is 19.)

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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