Last week, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (No. 12-536), a case that challenges the federal cap on the aggregate amount of money that an individual can give to all federal candidates and political committees in any two-year period. While the evolution of campaign finance law over the past several years now allows individuals, and corporations, to spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures, federal campaign finance law still restricts the amount of money that can be given directly to candidates.
The Federal Election Campaign Act imposes two distinct limits on political contributions. First, individuals are restricted in the amount of money that can be given directly to any one political candidate, political committee or party unit. Currently, an individual can contribute up to $2,500 per election to a federal candidate, up to $32,400 per calendar year to a national party committee and up to $5,000 per calendar year to a non-party affiliated PAC. The second restriction places a cap on the total amount of money that an individual can spend on all federal races in any two-year period. Specifically, an individual cannot contribute more than $48,600 to all federal candidates and $74,600 to all political party committees during a biennial period.
Without the aggregate restrictions, a wealthy individual who chooses to participate in all House and Senate races could spend almost $2.5 million in a two-year cycle, while contributing $1.2 million in additional funds to state and national party units as well as an undetermined amount to various political action committees. It has been reported that approximately 1,700 individual donors hit the aggregate biennial contribution limit in the 2012 election cycle. The federal aggregate limits do not restrict the amount of money that can be given to state or local candidates as those restrictions – if any – are determined by state and local campaign finance law.
The current challenge was brought by Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama resident who sought to make contributions in excess of the federal limits during the last election cycle. McCutcheon is not seeking to overturn the restriction on how much money he is allowed to give directly to any one particular candidate. Instead, he claims that by limiting the aggregate amount that he is allowed to spend on federal races, the government is unreasonably restricting his First Amendment rights by limiting the total number of candidates that are allowed to receive his support. The Republican National Committee joined in the lawsuit.
A three-judge panel in the Federal District Court in Washington upheld the overall limits last year, noting that aggregate limits are necessary to prevent individuals from circumventing the limits on contributions to particular candidates. While independent spending has been declared by the Court to be protected speech and not subject to expenditure limits, prior judicial decisions have drawn a clear line between expenditure limits and contribution limits based on the idea that large contributions directly to candidates can create the appearance of corruption. Supporters of the law argue that without the aggregate limits, fundraising efforts could result in large donors having powerful access to lawmakers. They also speculate that if the aggregate caps are invalidated, the next challenge would be to individual contribution limits.
The justices will issue their opinion before the end of June. Stay tuned to Inside the Minnesota Capitol for more details.