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Inside Political Law Updates on developments in campaign finance, lobbying & government ethics law

Supreme Court to Take Up Biennial Contribution Limits

Posted in Campaign Finance, Litigation

The top story in today’s campaign finance press is the Supreme Court’s decision to hear McCutcheon v. FEC, a challenge to the Federal Election Campaign Act’s biennial limits on individual contributions to candidate and non-candidate committees.  Here are a few key take-aways.

Timing.  The Court’s argument calendar is full for the remainder of the Term, which traditionally ends in June.  As a consequence, the case will be among the first argued in early October at the start of the 2013 Term, and will surely be decided by the summer of 2014.  Thus, if the Court lifts the biennial limits, permitting wealthy individuals to increase their giving, the change in the law would come, at the latest, in the midst of the primaries for the 2014 midterm elections.

What’s at issue?  McCutcheon wanted to contribute $25,000 each to the RNC, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the National Republican Congressional Committee.  However, federal law capped his giving to national party committees at $70,800 in the aggregate over a two-year period.  (Those limits were subsequently increased to $74,600 to account for inflation.)  McCutcheon also wanted to give $54,400 to various federal candidates, a sum that exceeded the then-$46,200 aggregate biennial limit for such contributions.  So the Court has been asked to decide if those aggregate contribution limits are constitutional.

What’s not at issue.  The decision challenges only the biennial limits.  It does not take issue with the limits on how much an individual may give to a particular candidate, party, or PAC.  But the Court’s reasoning may have important implications for these limits as well.

What’s at stake?  In a nutshell, the extent to which Congress can regulate money in politics.

Citizens United appears to narrow the government’s legitimate interest to circumstances where there is “quid-pro-quo corruption” or the appearance of it.  McCutcheon and the RNC argue that the anticorruption and anticircumvention interests relied upon by the district court exceed that narrow category.  Importantly, Citizens United was a case about expenditures, which are afforded more constitutional protection under Buckley than the contributions at issue in this case.  The case will thus test the reach of Citizens United in a number of ways.

The challengers also invoke Randall v. Sorrell to argue that the biennial contribution limits are too low.  As we’ve previously written, that decision produced opinions by six Justices, and so we may gain some insight as to the current Court’s thinking on the issue.

One thing to keep in mind.  The case should be seen as posing two distinct issues: (1) whether there can be an overall limit on candidate contributions, and (2) whether there can be an overall limit on party contributions.  The district court analyzed the two issues together, but the Supreme Court may craft different constitutional standards for each category of limits depending on if/how they can be justified.