State campaign contribution limits could be on the line today at the Supreme Court

October 8, 2013

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

The Supreme Court today is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case about campaign contribution limits that could end up having implications for some state regulations.

The case itself — McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission — is all about federal rules. McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman and GOP donor, wants the federal government to remove a limit of $123,200 on overall contributions an individual can make in a two-year cycle. (FEC rules also limit individual contributions to candidates, party committees and political action committees, all subject to the aggregate limit.)

If McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee, who together filed the case, get their way, individuals would potentially be able to donate millions of dollars per cycle. They say the limit is a violation of free speech rights. Supporters argue it maintains a level playing field and helps to prevent corruption.

A ruling would affect a small group — only 646 individuals bumped up against that aggregate limit during the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets blog.

But state laws with lower limits may hang in the balance, too. That’s because the rationale that upholds or dismantles the aggregate limit may end up applying to those limits, too. And roughly 10 states have such rules, experts say.

In Massachusetts, for example, the maximum an individual can contribute to all state, county and local candidates is $12,500. In the next election cycle, Arizonans will be limited to $6,390 in contributions to candidates or committees that give to candidates.

Opponents of aggregate limits argue that states without caps are doing just fine. But proponents compare it to the Citizens United case that allowed unlimited independent corporate political spending. That case had implications for 22 states with similar rules, according to the advocacy group Public Citizen. And some argue that the outcome of McCutcheon could be more significant.

“As bad as Citizens United was, I think this would be much worse,” Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, Maryland executive director of Common Cause, a nonprofit active on campaign-finance issues, said in an interview a few weeks ago.

Either way, today’s oral arguments are just the start. But experts and advocacy groups will be closely watching for a sense of how the court will rule next year.

(To learn more about the McCutcheon case, check out our Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes’s excellent explainer.

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