WASHINGTON— The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to consider taking another step toward dismantling campaign finance laws, potentially freeing wealthy donors to give as much as they want in any election cycle and raising the possibility that it could overturn limits that apply to individual candidates as well.
In its landmark Citizens United decision, the court ruled in 2010 that corporations, unions and individuals could spend unlimited sums on campaign ads so long as they are independent of the candidates and political parties. That triggered the creation of so-called “super PACs,” which can raise and spend huge sums on politics, so long as they are ostensibly independent of a candidate or party.
On Tuesday the court moved to a different arena: that of limits on the sum individuals can contribute directly to candidates and parties.
Fearing the undue influence of very wealthy donors, Congress in the Watergate era set a limit on how much an individual could donate in one election. This limit has been adjusted for inflation and upheld by the courts, at least so far.
The justices agreed to hear an appeal from an Alabama donor and the Republican National Committee (McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission), which contends the total contribution limit of $123,200 per election cycle is “unconstitutionally low.”
Some commentators said the justices could go further and reexamine a 1976 decision that upheld limits on contributions per candidate. Under current law, individuals may give no more than $2,500 to a federal candidate running for office, up to $30,800 a year to the national political committees and $10,000 to state parties.
“We’re now witnessing the demolition of our campaign finance laws, brick by brick,” said Daniel Tokaji, an election law expert at Ohio State University. “This pattern of demolishing piecemeal is almost certain to continue.”
He and others said the limit on total contributions is particularly vulnerable.
Super PACs have already created an avenue for wealthy donors to give unlimited amounts to independent political action committees. By striking down the limit on total donations to candidates and parties, the court would be giving individuals the option of donating money to a party to be spread among its candidates, rather than to a supposedly independent super PAC.
“By removing aggregate limits on party giving, McCutcheon would be a step in equalizing the role of parties with that of so-called super PACs,” said Brad Smith, a former FEC chairman and chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes the campaign funding limits.
Supporters of the current law called the court’s action troubling. “If the current aggregate contribution limits were to be struck down, 1- or 2- or even 3 million dollars in contributions could easily be funneled by a single donor to his or her party and candidates,” said Tara Malloy, counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, which supports campaign finance regulation.
Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform advocacy group Democracy 21, said striking down the total limits on contributions would be a “radical action by a radical court.”
Last year, the RNC and Shaun McCutcheon filed suit, but a three-judge panel, led by Judge Janice Rogers Brown, upheld the limits as constitutional. She noted the Supreme Court had said limiting a person’s political contributions has only a “marginal” effect on his freedom of speech. If the high court wants to rethink that view, only the justices can do so, she concluded.
The RNC and McCutcheon then lodged their appeal in the Supreme Court, which said it would hear the challenge.