Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Aggregate Contribution Limits - State and Federal Communications

April 8, 2013  •  

Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Aggregate Contribution Limits

Seal of the United States Supreme CourtThe United States Supreme Court has decided to hear a case challenging the aggregate federal limits for a person making contributions to candidates, party committees, and PACs. The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), is expected to be argued and decided during the Court’s next term, which begins in October, 2013.

The plaintiff, Shaun McCutcheon, is an Alabama businessman who regularly makes political contributions to Republican candidates and the Republican National Committee (RNC). Mr. McCutcheon wishes to contribute $26,200 more to candidates and committees than the aggregate ceiling would allow. However, he is not challenging the limits on contributions to individual candidates and entities. Mr. McCutcheon wants to give to more candidates and political entities. The RNC is also a plaintiff in the suit.

Federal law imposes two types of limits on individual political contributions, base limits and biennial limits.

Base limits restrict the amount an individual may contribute to:

  • A candidate committee;
  • A national party committee;
  • A state, local, and district party committee; and
  • A political action committee.

Biennial limits restrict the aggregate amount an individual may contribute biennially, using the 2011-2012 election cycle limits argued against in the lawsuit, as follows:

  • $46,200 to candidate committees; and
  • $70,800 to all other committees, of which no more than $46,200 may go to non-national party committees (e.g., state parties and PACs).

The plaintiffs are only challenging the overall limits (the biannual limits) and not the base limits.

The attorneys for McCutcheon and the RNC argue the two-year ceilings federal law sets on what an individual can contribute during a campaign are unconstitutional. Specifically, they assert the limits on contributions violate a contributor’s right to free speech; the limits for biennial contributions are too low; and the distinction between contributions and expenditures articulated in the 1976 US Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo are no longer applicable because of the changes in campaign finance laws over the last 30 years. Buckley v. Valeo allowed for government regulation of contributions to prevent political corruption and prohibited government regulation of expenditures because of First Amendment protections.

Unlike Citizens United v FEC, which concerned political expenditures, McCutcheon v. FEC addresses contribution limits. Additionally, this case does not involve the political contributions or expenditures of corporations.

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