Supreme Court to Review Aggregate Campaign Donation Limit

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider a Republican challenge to federal limits on the total amount of money individuals can give to candidates, political parties and political committees every two years.

The justices said today they will hear an appeal from the Republican National Committee and an Alabama voter, Shaun McCutcheon, who says he would like to contribute more than the $123,200 allowed under federal law.

A court ruling for the RNC and McCutcheon could overturn limits on campaign contributions dating to 1971 and upheld by the justices in their 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision. The justices three years ago threw out other campaign finance limits passed by Congress, relaxing limits on corporate and union political spending in the Citizens United case.

“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 with the Campaign Legal Center. The Washington-based group, which supports limits on political giving, filed a court brief in this case.

The case before the court doesn’t affect the maximum amount donors can give to individual candidates, party committees or PACs. Instead, it concerns the amount people can contribute to those entities in total every two years.

Three-Judge Court

A three-judge U.S. District Court panel in Washington dismissed the case in September after being urged to by the Justice Department. The decision, written by Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, said the court “cannot ignore the ability of aggregate limits to prevent evasion” of caps on donations to candidates.

Individual donors in 2013-14 can give a maximum of $123,200 during the two-year period, including a maximum of $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to political parties and political action committees. The amounts are indexed every two years for inflation.

Those limits are separate from the individual donation caps of $2,600 per election to a candidate, $5,000 per year to a PAC and $32,400 to a political party committee.

A high court decision overturning the aggregate limit would allow individuals to contribute more than $3.5 million every two years -- the maximum donation to each candidate and party, according to the Campaign Legal Center.

Today’s case was filed by James Bopp Jr., the same lawyer who filed the Citizens United case. He said that because individuals can give unlimited donations to super-PACs and nonprofit groups, there shouldn’t be a limit on the total amount they can give to candidates and parties.

‘Transparent Entities’

“The most accountable and most transparent entities, the ones who should have the principal role in campaigns -- candidates and parties -- are the ones who are limited,” Bopp said in an interview today. “We really crossed the Rubicon on whether people can spend large sums of money on politics.”

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington advocacy group that supports limits on donations, said removing the aggregate limits would make it easier for donors to evade limits on how much they can give to each individual candidate. Candidates who have enough campaign money often donate some of theirs to colleagues.

That “would do extraordinary damage to the nation’s ability to prevent the corruption of federal officeholders and government decisions,” Wertheimer said.

David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, an Alexandria, Virginia-based group that opposes restrictions on campaign contributions, said he disagreed.

“The idea that candidates are going to be soliciting for every candidate and their party is ridiculous,” Keating said. “Candidates are looking out for themselves, not for everyone else.”

Bopp said removing the limits would make it easier to hold politicians accountable.

“You can’t vote against a super-PAC,” he said. “But if money was going to candidates or political parties, if the people didn’t like it, they could do something about it.”

The case is McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, 12-536.

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