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Political Contribution Limits Overturned

Read the full decision: McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

The Supreme Court of the United States has considered a challenge to the aggregate contributions under federal law that individuals may make to campaigns and committees.

Federal law limits the amounts of federal election-related contributions that an individual may contribute during a two-year election cycle.  Currently, the base limits are as follows: $2600 per election for each candidate (or $5200 total, for both the primary and general elections); $32,400 per year to a national party committee; $10,000 per year to state or local party committee; and $5000 per year to a political committee.  The total limits were $48,600 for candidates and $74,600 to committees for the two-year election cycle.

Shaun McCutcheon (“Challenger”) brought a lawsuit along with the Republican National Committee challenging the total limits that he could contribute to federal candidates and party committees.  In the 2011-12 election cycle, the Challenger contributed $33,088 to 16 different federal candidates and stated that he would have contributed $1,776 to 12 other candidates.   He also contributed $27,238 to several non-candidate political committees and stated that he would have like to have given $25,000 to each of the three national Republican committees.  He expressed a desire to give $60,000 to candidates and $75,000 to party committees in the next election cycle.

The trial court rejected the Challenger’s lawsuit, determining that government’s interest in avoiding corruption by establishing aggregate contribution limits outweighed the Challenger’s interest in making various contributions.  In particular, the trial court found that the contribution limits helped avoid circumvention of the base limits because the various committees could transfer the contributions to other committees if there were no aggregate limits, thereby potentially creating the effect where an individual’s actual contributions to a candidate would exceed the base limits.  The Challenger appealed.

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the trial court and declared the aggregate contribution limits unconstitutional.  The Court determined that an individual’s First Amendment right to participate in the political process by supporting candidates of his/her choice outweighed the government’s anticorruption interest in establishing aggregate contribution limits and so reversed the trial court.

The Court examined an earlier case that had upheld contribution limits.  In Buckley v. Valeo, the Court for the first time considered a challenge to contribution limits.  The decision was primarily a discussion on whether the government had a sufficient interest in establishing base contribution limits.  Because base limits inhibit “a fundamental First Amendment” interest, the Court subjected base contribution limits to its highest scrutiny.  However, the Court ruled that the government’s objective in preventing quid pro quo corruption by elected officials in return for contributions received supported the establishment of base limits. 

The Court did not find Buckley’s discussion of aggregate contribution limits to be controlling.  Only one paragraph of the Buckley opinion discussed the aggregate limits.  The Buckley court simply remarked that the aggregate limits ($25,000 in 1976) were “a corollary of the basic individual contribution limitation” and so found it upheld the aggregate limits.  Since the Buckley decision, the Court noted that the Federal Election Commission has enacted many additional campaign finance rules, such as protections against earmarked contributions.  Thus, the court refused to resolve this case based on the three sentences in the Buckley decision.

The Court declared the aggregate contribution limits unconstitutional because these limits forced individuals to limit, or reduce the amount of support for, candidates of their choosing.  The Court did not find the government’s argument that aggregate limits helped avoid corruption, as it could not explain how giving the maximum to 10 candidates did not cause corruption, but giving a penny more to another candidate would cause such corruption. 

The court also rejected the district court’s analysis that committees could transfer funds between themselves to circumvent contribution limits, since the FEC has specific rules about earmarking contributions and the evidence shows that candidate committees rarely transfer contributions to other candidates.  Therefore, the court ruled that the aggregate contribution limits infringed the Challenger’s First Amendment right to support candidates of his choosing and the government had failed to offer a compelling interest to justify this infringement, and so the Court declared the aggregate contribution limits unconstitutional.

McCutcheon v. Fed. Election Comm'n, 134 S. Ct. 1434 (U.S. 2014).

What Does This Mean for RPAC:  The McCutcheon decision does not have any direct effect on RPAC contributions or disbursements.  The case removes the aggregate contribution limits to federal committees and also calls into question the constitutionality of any state-law aggregate contribution limits.