Supreme Court Further Eases Campaign Finance Restrictions

By:  Thomas R. Eddlem
Supreme Court Further Eases Campaign Finance Restrictions

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on aggregate campaign donations April 2 by a narrow 5-4 decision. 

The court plurality in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, while upholding the $2,600 limit on donations to individual candidates, said wealthy political donors should be able to donate the maximum level to as many candidates as they desire. These donations can now, therefore, exceed the previous aggregate limit of $48,600.

“The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court opinion. “The whole point of the First Amendment is to protect individual speech that the majority might prefer to restrict, or that legislators or judges might not view as useful to the democratic process.” Roberts noted that Congress had a responsibility to enact laws “preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption,” but that there was no corruption prevented by imposing the $48,600 aggregate campaign limitation. 

Nothing in the decision impacted the 2010 Citizens United decision that lifted all limits on political donations to independent expenditures. During the 2012 election cycle, independent organizations spent billions of dollars to influence the electorate with varying degrees of success. Karl Rove's American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS spent some $176.4 million in 2012, most of which was devoted to nine races, and Rove lost eight of the nine (winning only the governor's race in overwhelmingly Republican Nebraska). Meanwhile, the much smaller Liberty-For-All SuperPAC spent $1.7 million on 10 races and won 90 percent of them (losing only former Rep. Ron Paul's presidential campaign). The 2012 cycle saw the rise of a number of powerful Tea Party-aligned, well-funded independent groups that won substantial victories in Congress, including the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Senate Conservatives Fund, and Heritage Action for America.

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