Supreme Court Strikes Down Limits To Political Donations

Apr 3 2014, 3:22pm CDT | by

In a 5-4 ruling divided along ideological camps, the Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits to federal campaign contributions yesterday. The case, McCutcheon v. FEC, marks the third time in the past five years in which the Roberts Court has rejected state and federal efforts to control campaign financing, opening the doors to wealthy individuals and corporations to funnel more funds into the electoral process.

The federal election law under review in McCutcheon imposed two types of restrictions on campaign contributors. It restricted the amount a donor could make to an individual candidate and limited the total contributions a donor could make to all candidates and political committees in a two-year election cycle to $123,200.

In assessing the law, the majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts stuck to a narrow view of the interplay between campaign contributions and political corruption. Any restrictions on these contributions, Roberts declared on several occasions, must be limited to “quid pro quo” or “ direct” corruption – acts of bribery or interactions in which donations are directly linked to an act by an elected official.

With this narrow definition serving as the foundation of its ruling, the Court scrutinized how aggregate limits might help reduce corruption. In Buckley, a 1976 opinion reviewing various campaign contribution limits imposed by Congress in the 1970s, the Court upheld the validity of aggregate limits as a way to prevent donors from circumventing the restrictions limiting contributions to individual candidates.

Though it acknowledged that the Buckley opinion spent little time on the issue of aggregate limitations, the Roberts Court applied the same standard in McCutcheon. Yet, after a lengthy discussion, it overruled Buckley, deeming it as outdated.

The majority found that the statutory safeguards currently in place prevent the type of circumvention feared in Buckley. “We conclude,” Roberts declared, “that the aggregate limits do little, if anything, to address [corruption] while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process.” The majority then offered Congress various new ways to prevent the circumvention of the individual contribution limits without resorting to aggregate limitations.

In contrast to the majority’s narrow interpretation of corruption, Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissenting opinion called for an expansive understanding on how campaign spending corrupted the political process. Congress has an “interest in maintaining the integrity of our public governmental institutions,” Breyer wrote, that is far broader than the majority’s circumscribed view. The ability for all citizens to participate in the political process, and not just those with deep pockets, Breyer’s opinion went on, ensures that a “free marketplace of political ideas” won’t be suffocated by the voices of the few with “privileged access to and pernicious influence upon elected representatives.”

The conservative majority, however, repeatedly rejected these contentions. “Our cases have held that Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption,” the Chief Justice wrote.  “At the same time,” he went on, “we have made clear that Congress may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”

Under these circumstances, the Court therefore found no merit in arguments calling for a level playing field or evening the financial resources available to candidates. “The First Amendment prohibits such legislative attempts to ‘fine-tune’ the electoral process, no matter how well intentioned,” it concluded.

This conclusion was consistent with the Court’s recent campaign finance decisions. In its 2009 seminal decision, Citizens United, the Court’s five conservative justices rejected restrictions on election spending by corporations and unions as long as these expenditures did not involve direct contributions to candidates. The ruling opened the floodgates to corporate spending in elections. Then in 2011, the same five justices rejected Arizona’s attempt to provide monetary support to publicly financed candidates when they were outspent by opponents who relied on private donations.

All three rulings take a high-minded and normative world-view of the political process, one in which campaign donors and elected officials behave as they should rather than they often actually do when large sums are spent on elections.

“Taken together with Citizens United,” Breyer wrote in his dissenting opinion, “today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”


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