Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 13, 2016

Supreme Court Rejects Aggregate Contribution Limits

Campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer speaks in front of the Supreme Court after the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission oral arguments on Tuesday morning, Oct. 8, 2013. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer speaks at the Supreme Court after McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission arguments last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated, 11:45 a.m. | In a long-awaited ruling in the case known as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court today struck the aggregate limit on campaign contributions as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

Significantly, the high court left in place the base limit on how much individuals and political action committees may give to candidates and political parties. But today’s ruling makes a challenge to that direct contribution limit, which stands at $2,600 per election for an individual, all but inevitable in the near future.

What the court overturned today was the overall limit on the amount that one individual may give to candidates, parties and PACs in a two-year election cycle, a cap that now stands at $123,000. Republican businessman Shaun McCutcheon had challenged the aggregate limit on the grounds that giving the same amount to a larger number of candidates would not invite corruption.

In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who had been considered the swing vote in the case, the Supreme Court agreed. As in its landmark Citizens United v. FEC ruling in 2010, the court concluded that limits on political money may only pass constitutional muster if they present a direct threat of quid pro quo corruption — a high bar that signals this court will remain receptive to future challenges to the few campaign restrictions that remain.

“There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” wrote Roberts. Quoting from the Citizens United ruling opinion that “ingratiation and access … are not corruption,” Roberts went on to state: “Any regulation must instead target that we have called ‘quid pro quo’ corruption or its appearance. That Latin phrase captures the notion of a direct exchange of an official act for money.”

Conservatives on and off Capitol Hill hailed the ruling as a victory for the First Amendment.

“What I think this means is, freedom of speech is being upheld,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters at a Wednesday morning press conference just moments before the decision was handed down. “You all have the freedom to write what you want to write, donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”

Boehner added, “I’m all for freedom. … Congratulations.”

Boehner also panned the McCain-Feingold landmark campaign finance overhaul legislation as “bizarre,” and one that has “distorted the political process.”

Across the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has been deeply involved in campaign finance issues, also applauded the decision.

“The Supreme Court has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a Constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice,” McConnell said in a statement.

Center for Competitive Politics Chairman Bradley Smith, a former GOP chairman of the FEC, declared in a statement: “Today is a good day for democracy. The court has put some teeth into the requirement that campaign contributions must have a legitimate anti-corruption purpose. This will make it easier for candidates and parties to raise funds, and that is also a good thing.”

But not all Republicans were applauding. McCain, who co-authored that 2002 ban on unrestricted “soft” money donations to the parties, called the opinion “tragic.” Asked about the ruling, the Arizona Republican replied: “What can I say? I think it’s really the worst. I think it’s a terrible decision, but I’m not surprised given their decision in Citizens United.”

And advocates of campaign finance limits warned that the ruling would open the floodgates once again to the soft money that McCain and his Democratic ally, then-Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, banned in 2000. Progressive activists warned that federal officials will now be free to raise millions from big donors at a pop under the guise of collecting individual checks for campaign committees and candidates.

“The Supreme Court in the McCutcheon decision today overturned 40 years of national policy and 38 years of judicial precedent to strike down the overall limits on the total contributions from an individual to federal candidates and to party committees in an election cycle,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer in a statement. “With its decision today in McCutcheon, the Supreme Court majority continued on its march to destroy the nation’s campaign finance laws, which were enacted to prevent corruption and protect the integrity of our democracy.”

Emma Dumain and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

  • papal

    Well if dems continue to rely on low information people for their elections, then those who are the dem targets should be able to use any money they have available.

  • Mondovibe
  • ian807

    Plutocracy now masquerades as democracy. Not content with what they’ve already done, The SCOTUS has given a green light to the end of *real* democracy in the USA.

    The empire rots from within.

  • arjayt

    Elizabeth Carney, Roll Call, on the 1st Amendment:
    “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” wrote Roberts. Quoting from the Citizens United ruling opinion that “ingratiation and access … are not corruption,”

    The decision concerns SPECIFC law terms in conflict with the 1st Amendment. That is within the Court’s authorities defined in Article III, Section 2.
    It did not address the social effects of unlimited money, a substantial amount of which is from untraceable foreign elements, on the representative form of government. The effects in the modern world is that a given set of Representative districts can be permanently controlled by a single entity that has not itself been elected. The sheer weight of economic numbers will automatically prevent the democracy from working as intended by the six covenants in the Preamble by making it impossible for the very same 1st Amendment to operate freely. That is, the total amount of money required for election to public office makes a free election impossible, which is a clear violation of Article IV, Section 4 which guarantees ‘every State in the Union a Republican Form of Government’ which is a popular democracy, not a feudal kingdom.

    In order to insure and protect Article IV, it would be necessary to limit the ENTIRE amount of wealth involved in an election of any position. That would require a clarifying Amendment that limits economy transfers to a SPECIFIC period prior to an election so that an elected official does not have to be going to his ‘owner’ for more money throughout the year of office. The mere fact that money cannot be transferred for election purposes until a specified
    number of days before an election would actually ‘free’ all representatives to
    carry out the business of ‘Republican’ governance, which would re-instate
    Article IV, Section 4.

    • Nick10

      Well done. Certain Congressional district ordinary voters got stiffed. These voters will not be served by their Congressman. These Congressmen march to a new order.

    • Denny Minori

      Of course if the money ONLY came from public sources like tax revenue and not provate sources then the limit on the amount of money could more easily be established.

      In keeping with Justice Roberts quote what better way to ensure the basic right of ALL in electing our political leaders than to have ALL contribute the necessary funding. Liberty and justice for ALL.

  • papal

    I see the crybaby chorus has chimmed in to whine about the Tea Party.

  • Oliver Ales

    While liberty provides principles that guide us toward what the law should be, democratic methods can help determine what the law will be.

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