The U.S. Supreme Court dealt another severe blow to campaign finance law, striking down a major piece of a key federal law regulating and limiting donations to political parties and political action committees – which can be made without publicly disclosing the identity of the donor. AARP’s brief had urged the Court to uphold “aggregate spending limits” as a modest restriction on speech.
A campaign contributor and a national political fundraising committee challenged decades-old federal laws limiting aggregate campaign contributions (the total amounts an individual can give directly to candidates, either directly or indirectly via election fundraising organizations). They argued that such limits are no longer necessary given recent legislation and no longer permissible given recent Supreme Court rulings. These plaintiffs argued that because federal law now allows public scrutiny of individual donations to candidates, and contributions to each candidate is limited overall aggregate contributions by individuals to all the candidates they favor no longer are required.
AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief in the case, along with seven other organizations concerned with campaign finance issues. The brief pointed out the history that led to aggregate contribution limits – concerns that allowing individuals to give the maximum to as many candidates as they want would give wealthy individuals too much actual or apparent influence and produce corruption or the appearance of corruption in their favor. AARP’s brief emphasized that those dangers remain, especially with emerging technology, which would allow individual donors to simply give one enormous check to an entity responsible for doling out the maximum contribution to numerous federal candidates (up to 435 members of Congress and at least 33 Senators) running for office in each federal election cycle. Such donors could expect to exert undue influence, AARP argued, on a party all of whose candidates received the individual’s money.
Detailing actual joint fundraising practices among organizations and individuals, as well as possible expansions of these efforts should the laws be relaxed, the brief argued that the plaintiffs “turn a blind eye to the real-world consequences of eliminating the aggregate limits, and disregard the ways the limits continue to advance the governmental interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption, as well as in deterring circumvention of the base contribution limits.” Relaxing the current laws could lead to the regular donation of six and seven figure donations from individual donors, all outside of the public view.
The brief also parsed the legislative history and the debates leading up to enactment of overall spending limits, as well as the language of the subsequent Supreme Court decisions upholding those limits, and argued that conditions present then are largely still present today.
In a stunning blow to efforts to limit the effect money can have on elections, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while Congress can regulate individual campaign contributions to particular candidates, it cannot regulate the overall amount of money individuals can contribute to such candidates so that individual cannot give the maximum to all of one party’s candidates. It is not a valid basis for legislation, the Court said, for Congress to attempt to reduce the amount of money in politics or to enhance or reduce the influence of individual contributors, so long as they stay within maximum limits on contributions to specific candidates.
The decision by Chief Justice Roberts, joined by three of his colleagues, left in place limits on donations to individual candidates and political action committees. (Justice Thomas concurred but wrote a separate opinion that would have gone even further to overturn all individual limits on donations.)
What’s at Stake
Striking down aggregate spending limits allows wealthy individuals to play an even greater role in the political process than before and takes away from Congress another tool, previously upheld by the courts, to limit the impact of money on the democratic process.
McCutcheon v. FEC was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.