The RNC lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington, is the latest in a series of cases brought by conservatives challenging laws that restrict how elections are funded. So far, they have found a largely receptive audience at the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., most notably with the 2010
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
The ruling allowed unfettered corporate spending on elections and, by extension, the creation of super PACs, which are spending million-dollar contributions in this year’s presidential contest.
The Citizens United decision was a big boost to interest groups, weakening the ability of campaigns and parties to compete with them. The current challenge would restore some of the balance by removing restrictions on the political parties.
Current law dictates that one person may give no more than $2,500 to a political candidate in one election, and $30,800 each year to one political party committee, such as the RNC. The new court case doesn’t challenge those limits, but targets another one: the overall cap of $117,000 in each election cycle, along with separate caps for the total amount one person can give to candidates and to parties. Contributions to super PACs are not included in the caps.
Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama conservative activist and businessman, brought the lawsuit along with the RNC because he is seeking to contribute more than the $70,800 limit to the RNC and the party’s House and Senate fundraising arms.
McCutcheon argues that the cap is a burden on First Amendment protections of free political speech and association. The Supreme Court has previously balanced those rights with the government’s interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption that might stem from large sums donated to federal candidates.
If McCutcheon and the RNC are successful, it would mean that one person could give more than $2 million to candidates and party committees if they divided the money among House and Senate members and various state parties.
“It could lead to a situation where eye-popping amounts of money were being contributed to one side,” said Tara Malloy, senior counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, which defends campaign contribution limits. “It’s hard to even pass the laugh test when a plaintiff still maintains that raises no corruption concerns.”
Jim Bopp, representing the RNC in the case, said there is no justification for the total limit when each candidate and party committee already has restrictions on what they can raise from one person.
“Each one of them have their own limits and that deals with any corruption concerns,” Bopp said. “They’re separate legal entities that don’t control each other.”
The Supreme Court already addressed aggregate limits in 1976 with the case
Buckley v. Valeo
, which upheld them as constitutionally sound. The court referred to aggregate limits, then at $25,000, saying “this quite modest restraint” prevented the evasion of the candidate limits by preventing “huge contributions to the candidate’s political party.”
However, when Buckley was decided there were no other limits on contributions to the parties, Bopp said.
Malloy says the RNC complaint hints at “broader aims” because of its request for the court to examine contribution limits with so-called strict scrutiny, the highest standard of judicial review invoked when fundamental constitutional rights are infringed.
Traditionally, such scrutiny has been applied to spending by candidates and groups, with a lower level of scrutiny applied to donations when they come in the door, Malloy said.
McCutcheon has already benefited from Citizens United. He’s the chairman and major funder behind the Conservative Action Fund, a super PAC that is attacking Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
“This suit has nothing to do with that in any way,” Bopp said. “It has to do with his desire to give money to the RNC and our desire to accept it.”
The Democratic National Committee declined to comment on the case. The party would also benefit from eased contribution limits, but Democratic lawmakers have defended limits on political donations and have had trouble convincing rich donors to cut the big checks sought by liberal super PACs.
For previous Influence Industry columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.