The Supreme Court campaign contributions case, explained

February 20, 2013

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider a GOP challenge to existing aggregate limits on contributions from individuals to candidates for federal office, and and the parties and political action committees that support/oppose them.


(Scott Eells/Bloomberg)

It has the potential to be a landmark case in the history of campaign finance with wide-reaching implications. So, what's at issue and what could the Court decision mean for campaigns in the future? We explain below.

What are the specifics of the case the court is hearing?

Alabama conservative activist and businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee are challenging the aggregate limit on contributions individuals can make to candidates, political parties, and some PACs. As The Washington Post's Robert Barnes noted in his piece on the case, that limit would be $123,000 for the 2013-2014 cycle ($48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to political parties and some political action committees).

It's important to note that there are also individual limits on what people can give to  candidates, parties, and some PACs. For example, one person can't give more than $2,600 a cycle to an specific candidate. McCutcheon and the RNC are not challenging those limits.

The Federal Election Commission -- the independent agency that enforces campaign finance regulations in federal campaigns -- has a handy chart here of all the current individual and aggregate limits per year and election cycle.

What are the stakes?

If the high court rules for McCutcheon and the RNC, individuals will be able to exercise greater financial influence across the electoral landscape. To illustrate why, let's look at what one person could give to their preferred candidates each cycle, under existing law.

Let's say someone wants to make the maximum contribution to their favorite Senate and House candidates. With a $2,600 limit on what one person can give to one specific candidate and a $48,600 cap on what that person can give in total to all candidates, that works out to a maximum donations to 18 candidates, and no more. If McCutcheon and the RNC are successful, the cap will no longer apply -- freeing individuals to donate to far more candidates if they so chose.

“It could lead to a situation where eye-popping amounts of money were being contributed to one side,” Campaign Legal Center senior counsel Tara Malloy told The Washington Post's T.W. Farnam last summer as the case worked its way through lower court. “It’s hard to even pass the laugh test when a plaintiff still maintains that raises no corruption concerns.” Malloy's group defends limits on contributions.

How is the court expected to rule?

That's the $10,000 question. Or in this case, the $123,200 question. No one knows the answer. What we do know is that those who want to loosen campaign finance restrictions have had recent success before the high court -- most notably in the form of 2010's landmark Citizens United case, one of the decisions that spurred the advent of the era of super PACs.

Which party would stand to gain an advantage if the court sides with McCutcheon and the RNC?

It's no coincidence that Republicans are the ones spearheading this latest Court challenge. While it's true that Democratic candidates and Democratic PACs would have the same rules as their GOP counterparts if the limits are lifted, we have seen how loosening campaign finance restrictions has tended to work in the GOP's favor.

The following chart from the Sunlight Foundation illustrates the disparity last cycle between Republican-aligned super PACs and Democratic-aligned super PACs -- organizations which aren't subject to the limits on donations to which other groups and candidates must adhere:

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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