The Supreme Court signaled Tuesday that it’s willing to take another look at well-established limits on how much money individuals can donate to political campaigns.
The court agreed to hear a case — filed by a Republican donor and the Republican National Committee — that seeks to overturn limits on how much money a person can donate in any two-year period.
If they’re successful, the cap on total individual contributions could skyrocket from $117,000 to more than $3 million per cycle.
“It’s a case of great potential significance ... it has the potential to be a game-changer,” said Stefan Passantino, who leads the political law practice at the firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge.
Advocates who want to limit the role of money in politics were unhappy with the court’s decision to take the case. The court doesn’t often hear fresh challenges to its own past decisions unless there’s a strong willingness among some justices to overturn a previous ruling.
“The outcome of this case is potentially disastrous,” said Tara Malloy, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center.
The case involves limits on the total amount one person can spend in a single election cycle. An individual currently can’t make more than $117,000 in donations in a two-year period — $46,200 to candidate committees, and $70,800 to other campaign committees.
Congress imposed those limits in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and the Supreme Court upheld the individual limits in the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo.
But more recently, the court has moved to ease campaign-finance restrictions. The landmark Citizens United case three years ago gave rise to super-PACs and cleared away many limits on how much corporations and nonprofits could spend to influence an election.
Limits on expenditures and limits on contributions are treated separately under the law — and that’s what has campaign-finance advocates so worried about the court’s latest move.
While Citizens United only loosened restrictions on big expenditures, the RNC’s case asks the court to overturn individual limits that it has previously upheld.
“They would do extraordinary damage to the ability of the country to prevent government corruption,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “They would in essence be overriding the prohibition on a federal officeholder soliciting large contributions and allow the most powerful officeholders in the country to solicit $1 million and $2 million checks.”
The case was filed by Alabama donor Shaun McCutcheon, who maxed out to a combination of candidates and party committees in the 2012 cycle. He gave money to 16 candidates, the RNC, the Alabama Republican Party, an outside group and Republican campaign arms for both House and Senate races.
McCutcheon sued because he wanted to donate more money, but would break the law by doing so. And the RNC joined his case because it wants to collect more contributions.
As a practical matter, the aggregate individual limit mostly restricts wealthy mega-donors — people who are able to pour nearly unlimited sums of money into the process through super-PACs and other organizations that arose in the wake of Citizens United.
“That may be so, and that is a product of the Supreme Court’s decision, but it does not justify creating a system of legalized bribery and allowing for direct corruption to occur between wealthy donors and federal officeholders,” Wertheimer said.
Even though those donors are able to spend heavily, they’re not able to write massive checks to individual candidates.
The RNC argues that lifting the aggregate contribution limits won’t distort the process, because there will still be a limit on how much a person could donate to a specific candidate.
The suit is targeting aggregate caps — an individual would still only be able to give $2,500 to each candidate, but could give $2,500 to as many candidates as he or she wanted, instead of capping out at a total of $46,200.
Without the aggregate caps, a wealthy donor could contribute about $3.5 million before maxing out, according to court documents.
McCutcheon and the RNC say the contribution limits are unconstitutional because they lack “any cognizable government interest ... at any level of review.”
A lower court rejected their claims, upholding the limits on individual contributions under the Supreme Court’s Buckley decision. In that ruling, the Supreme Court said some limits on campaign spending were restrictions on the First Amendment right to free expression, but that limits on individual contributions could be evaluated using a more lenient standard.
The big question now is whether the court wants to revisit that decision and reconsider whether individual limits also have to be weighed as First Amendment restrictions.
“The fact that the Supreme Court has taken this case up makes it very significant,” Passantino said. “We at least have the potential that the Supreme Court could overrule its past finding in the Buckley case.”