Supreme Court may further reduce limits on political campaign donations

For the first time since its landmark ruling in the Citizens United case three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take a new look at the amount individuals may contribute to candidates for political office and to political parties.

All kinds of bright scenarios have sprung up in the minds of conservatives since the announcement two days ago that the highest court agreed to hear the case. Joined in his suit by the Republican National Committee, Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon is seeking an end to the $123,200 limit an individual can give to national parties, federal candidates, and political action committees who support them.

Could the Supreme Court go “all the way,” for example, and lift the ceiling on the $2,500 an individual can now give to federal candidates and outlets?

“I don’t think the court will go all the way and do that,” Hans von Spakovsky, campaign finance expert and fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told Human Events.

Von Spakovsky pointed out that the attorney for McCutcheon, James Bopp Jr, is not asking the court to lift the cap on individual donations but only to deal with a far narrower issue of aggregate donations by an individual over a two-year cycle to the three groups that can give to a federal candidate. Under present election law, individuals can give no more than $123,200 for each two-year election cycle, with $2,500 per person for a candidate seeking federal office and $30,800 per year to national parties’ political action committees.

But could the court reach out and overturn the individual limit? It could, if it chose. During the argument of the Citizens United case in 2009, several justices seemed to be highly critical of limitations on donations to the political process. Justice Antonin Scalia, during an exchange with then-U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan — now an associate justice on the Supreme Court — noted that there is no evidence of corruption in state elections where there are no limits on corporate contributions. Kagan replied that the history of half the states should not trump the judgment of Congress to which Scalia replied that “Congress has a self-interest,” namely to protect incumbents.

In Citizens United, justices voted to end restrictions on corporate or union donations to independent, third-party groups who want to influence congressional or presidential elections. This gave rise to the super PACs who deluged the airwaves with widespread advertising advocating and opposing federal candidates.

In two other recent decisions — the Davis and Wisconsin Right-to-Life cases — the court under Chief Justice John Roberts came down on the side of the individual donor and against the regulations within the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) that is commonly called McCain-Feingold.

Given this pattern, von Spakovsky feels, the court is clearly moving in the direction of loosening government regulation of political activity. But “blowing off the cap” on what an individual can donate, he says, “is a bridge too far for them to go now. Perhaps they will in the next case.”