Corporate Accountability

Campaign Finance Back at the Supreme Court; Most Important Case Since Citizens United

By Ariane de Vogue


WASHINGTON — The issue of campaign finance returns to the Supreme Court today in a case brought by an Alabama businessman who wanted to contribute more money during the last election cycle.


“This case is about freedom of speech,” says businessman Shaun McCutcheon. “It’s about my right to make contributions to the candidates I choose.”


In the 2012 election cycle, McCutcheon contributed a total of $33,088 in congressional races across the nation. He abided by the base limits set by federal law. Currently individuals may contribute $2,600 per election to a particular candidate committee and $32,400 to a national party committee.


But McCutcheon wanted to give money to more candidates and was blocked from doing so by aggregate campaign contribution limits set by federal law.


Those limits in a two-year cycle are $48,600 to a candidate committee and $74,600 to a non candidate committee.


“I am a conservative activist and I want to support candidates and committees that agree with my views,” McCutcheon says. He says he is happy to stay within the base limits, but “as a donor, I don’t think I should have to stay up all night seeing if I have hit an aggregate limit. I’m just a donor practicing my free speech under the First Amendment.”


In the last cycle McCutcheon had settled on the number $1,776. That’s the amount he would have given to 12 other candidates for Congress, if he hadn’t been stopped by the aggregate contribution limits.


Joined by the RNC, McCutcheon argues that that the cumulative contribution limits impose an unconstitutional burden on core First Amendment activity.


He says that an individual should not be limited in how many candidates, parties or PACS he can contribute to within the base limits.


Jones Day attorney Michael Carvin agrees.


“The rationale of the cap makes no sense,” he says. “If I can give 10 $2,500 contributions without corrupting anybody, what difference does it make if I make a hundred $2,500 contributions?”


In the area of campaign finance, the Supreme Court has distinguished between limits on expenditures and limits on contributions. In the Citizens United case, the Court struck down independent spending limits for corporations and unions, but it has — so far — consistently upheld federal contribution limits.


“For more than 70 years, federal law has generally limited the amounts that individuals may contribute to political candidates, political-party committees, and non-party political committees for the purpose of influencing elections for federal office,” writes Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. in briefs defending the aggregate contribution limits. “Both Congress and this court have recognized that such limits are an important tool in combating corruption and the appearance of corruption in federal politics.”


Verrilli argues that rich donors like McCutcheon are not prohibited from contributing to as many candidates, parties and other committees as they want. If McCutcheon chooses to support more candidates, he just has to give less to each.


Campaign finance reform advocates are fearful that the Roberts Court might limit or overturn precedent regarding individual contribution limits. They argue that without aggregate limits, some individuals might try to circumvent the base limits and pour money into the system.


“Without aggregate contribution limits, individuals would be free to cut million-dollar checks to candidates and their parties via joint-fundraising committees,” says Elizabeth Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center.


She says she fears the Court will take a step backward.


“It was huge contributions of this sort during the Watergate-era that led to the passage of the challenged federal campaign finance laws in the first place,” she says.