Thursday, November 30, 2017
The en banc D.C. Circuit unanimously ruled this week that FECA's per-election base limits on campaign contributions don't violate free speech.
The ruling could give the Supreme Court a chance to reevaluate its stance on the constitutionality of base contributions, or at least per-election base contributions, in light of its most recent ruling on contributions, McCutcheon v. FEC. The Court in that case held that aggregate limits on base contributions violate free speech, even if base contributions themselves don't.
The plaintiffs in Holmes v. FEC challenged FECA's $2,600 base limit per candidate per election. The law means that a person can contribute up to $2,600 to a candidate in a primary, another $2,600 to that candidate in the general, and yet another $2,600 to that candidate in any runoff. In the usual course of things (without a runoff) this allows a person to contribute up to $5,200 to a candidate for the whole cycle.
The plaintiffs claimed that per-election restriction violated free speech, although they didn't take on all base limits. In other words, they wanted to contribute $0 to their favored candidates in the primaries, but $5,200 in the generals. The per-election restriction prevented them from doing that, and they claimed that this violated the First Amendment.
The D.C. Circuit disagreed. Citing Buckley v. Valeo (upholding per-election base limits against a free speech challenge, but not ruling specifically on the per-election nature of them) the court said that Congress's decision in FECA to create per-election restrictions (and not entire cycle restrictions) was a permissible way to implement base limits. In short, the court said that Congress had to create some timeframe for base contribution restrictions--because that's how base contributions work--and a per-election timeframe doesn't seem unreasonable. Said the court:
Contrary to plaintiffs' account of FECA, there is no $5,200 base contribution ceiling split between the primary and general elections. Instead, the Act by its terms established a $2,000 contribution limit, adjusted for inflation, which 'shall apply separately with respect to each [primary, general, and runoff] election.'
. . .
To impose a meaningful contribution ceiling, then, Congress has no choice but to specify some time period in which donors can contribute the maximum amount. There are a host of alternatives in that regard.
. . .
Just as Buckley did not require Congress to explain its choice of $1,000 rather than $2,000 as itself closely drawn to preventing corruption, we see no basis for requiring Congress to justify its choice concerning the other essential element of a contribution limit--its timeframe--as itself serving that interest.