Last week the Supreme Court struck down the aggregate limit on political contributions Americans can give to campaigns and political parties in an election cycle. The court did not undo limits on the amount people can contribute to candidates, some political action committees or state parties. The decision does not allow a donor to give one more dime to an individual candidate or party than he or she could before.
As Chief Justice John Roberts noted in the majority opinion, the McCutcheon case ultimately means that Americans – like Shaun McCutcheon, an engineer from Alabama – can exercise their most basic of constitutional rights: “to participate in electing [their] political leaders.”
“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.” – McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission
The Practical Effect of McCutcheon v. FEC
McCutcheon did not involve base limits – the restrictions on how much a donor can contribute to a particular candidate or committee. Just as it was before last week’s decision, a donor can give to:
The court seems to have affirmed Congress’ determination that the base limit for contributions to individual candidates of $5,200 does not create a practical risk of quid pro quo corruption – the specific type of corruption critical to our democratic system. The decision did not undo disclosure requirements.
Aggregate Totals Eliminated
“To require one person to contribute at lower levels than others because he wants to support more candidates or causes is to impose a special burden on broader participation in the democratic process.” – McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission
The court removed restrictions on the total contributions a donor may make to all candidates or committees. Previously, these aggregate limits meant that a donor could contribute a total of $48,600 to federal candidates and a total of $74,600 to other political committees. As the court observed, “the aggregate limits prohibit an individual from fully contributing to the primary and general election campaigns of ten or more candidates, even if all contributions fall within the base limits.” Such limitations, the court concluded, “deny the individual all ability to exercise his expressive and associational rights by contributing” to additional candidates. The court reasoned that the limits also failed to reconcile why it is “perfectly fine to contribute $5,200 to nine candidates but somehow corrupt to give the same amount to a tenth.”
Protecting the First Amendment
In McCutcheon, the court rejected the notion that the government can cap the number of candidates a person can choose to support. In doing so, the court preserved First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression and association – and the freedom of Americans to use their property in exercising those rights.