Supreme Court to consider limits on individual political contributions

February 19, 2013

The Supreme Court reentered the controversial field of campaign finance Tuesday, agreeing to consider a Republican challenge to decades-old limits on the total amount a person can contribute to candidates, political parties and political action committees.

It is the court’s first major campaign finance case since its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed unlimited corporate and union spending in elections. By extension, the decision led to the creation of super PACs, whose multimillion-dollar donations transformed funding of the 2012 presidential contest.

The new case, which will be heard in the court’s term that begins in October, concerns the federal limit on the amount an individual can contribute to certain campaigns during each election cycle.

For 2013-14, that would be $123,200 — a maximum of $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to political parties and some political action committees.

Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama conservative activist and businessman, brought the lawsuit along with the Republican National Committee because he is seeking to contribute more than those amounts. He is not challenging the limit on the amount he can give to individual candidates, $2,600.

A three-judge lower-court panel rejected McCutcheon’s contention that the aggregate limits were unconstitutionally low and overbroad. “It is not the judicial role to parse legislative judgment about what limits to impose,” the panel wrote.

Those who favor limits on campaign contributions were alarmed by the Supreme Court’s decision to review the ruling.

“It has become readily apparent that there are a number of justices who are willing to usurp Congress’s role as legislator when it comes to matter of campaign finance,” said Tara Malloy, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center.

“An aggregate contribution limit was passed in the wake of the Watergate money scandals and was upheld in the 1976 Supreme Court decision Buckley v. Valeo.” Without the limits, she said in a statement, “corruption, or at the very least the appearance of corruption, would be the rule rather than the exception in Washington.”

Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance advocate and president of Democracy 21, warned of multimillion-dollar contributions to political parties if the court were to toss out the limits.

But Brad Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics and an opponent of limits, said the Citizens United ruling may lead to the court’s reexamination of the Buckley v. Valeo decision, which justified contribution limits on anticorruption grounds.

“The case gives the court an opportunity to clarify an important legal question: If contribution limits to individual committees and candidates prevent corruption, what additional interest justifies aggregate contributions?” Smith said in a statement.

The Citizens United decision was a big boost to interest groups, weakening the ability of campaigns and parties to compete with them. There are no limits on the amount that individuals can contribute to super PACs. The challenge would restore some of the balance by removing restrictions on the political parties.

It is part of a systematic challenge to campaign finance restrictions undertaken by Republicans and conservative interest groups. They have had considerable success with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s court, which has been suspicious of spending limits it has found hinder political speech.

But even though Republicans have brought the challenge, the Democratic Party and its political action committees also would benefit from unfettered contributions.

The case is McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission .

T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in The Post’s Politics Discussion Forums.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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