February 19, 2013
Court to Test Individual Campaign Contribution Limits
The Supreme Court today said it would take up McCutcheon v. FEC, a case testing federal biennial limits on contributions to candidates, PACs, parties, and committees. (The jurisdictional statement is here.) While the case directly challenges biennial limits under the Buckley framework, the petitioner also preserved the issue whether Buckley's contribution-expenditure scrutiny distinction violates free speech.
It's not clear how much the case could matter to the sheer amount of money in politics. That's because contributors already have ample and growing opportunities to contribute to proliferating super-PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations. But if the Court takes on Buckley's contribution-expenditure distinction, the ruling could be quite significant both for First Amendment doctrine and money in politics. (That distinction means that the government can regulate contributions to prevent political corruption, but expenditures get full First Amendment protection.) It could be the next step after Citizens United in further opening the money spigot.
The case directly attacks federal biennial expenditure limits under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. BCRA limits an individual's contribution to a candidate, a national party, a local party, and a PAC in each calendar year. These are called "base limits." But BCRA also limits an individual's total contributions to all federal candidates, party committees, and PACs every two years. These are the "biennial limits."
McCutcheon argues that the biennial limits restrict his ability to contribute to as many candidates and parties as he'd like, thus restricting his First Amendment rights. In particular, he says that the biennial limits under BCRA have no justification and therefore must be struck.
To see why, start with the old biennial limit upheld by the Court in Buckley. Back then, there were no base limits for contributions to PACs or national or local parties. (There was a base limit on contributions to candidates, though--$1,000 per.) McClutcheon argues that the Court in Buckley upheld the biennial limit because it was designed to prevent a contributor from circumventing the base limit on candidates. How? By contributing massive amounts through political committees that would simply funnel the money to the candidate.
McClutcheon says that BCRA--with its base limits and biennial limits on candidates, committees, PACs, and parties--can't be designed to prevent circumvention in the same way. This is because BCRA's base limits themselves restrict circumvention. (BCRA's base limit on a party, e.g., prevents a contributor from funneling massive amounts of money through the party to the candidate). McClutcheon says that the only effects of BCRA's biennial limits are to restrict the total amount of cash he can spend and, with the base limits, to restrict the number of candidates, committees, PACs, and parties that he can spend on--thus violating his First Amendment rights. (E.g.: He would've liked to give $25,000 each to the RNC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the National Republican Congressional Committee before the 2012 election, but that would have exceeded the biennial limit.) McClutcheon says his case against the biennial limit on contributions to candidates is even stronger, because even Buckley didn't hold that there's an anti-circumvention interest in that limit. He claims that that limit serves only to prevent him from contributing to as many people as he'd like.
McClutcheon also argues that the biennial limits are too low.
The Court could rule on the narrow issue whether the biennial limits violate Buckley's anti-circumvention interest (which supported the old biennial limit). This kind of ruling (if, as expected, it overturns the biennial limits) could give contributors another way to spend more money in politics, but it would retain Buckley's contribution-expenditure scrutiny distinction. Alternatively, the Court could take on BCRA's biennial limits and Buckley's contribution-expenditure distinction. This could fundamentally change how we approach campaign finance restrictions under the First Amendment (even if it's not obvious that it would necessarily result in a ton more money in politics).
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