Are campaign contribution limits unconstitutional?

The Supreme Court will take a look at the biggest challenge to election finance law since the 2010 Citizens United case

President Obama talks with the winners of the Dinner with Barack fundraising contest on Oct. 12, 2012.
(Image credit: Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court has agreed to review what legal experts are billing as the most important campaign-finance case since Citizens United. That 2010 decision struck down limits on what individuals and groups can pump into election season messaging done independently of any candidate's campaign. The new case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, goes after another pillar of federal campaign finance law — the limits on contributions people can make directly to political candidates and some political committees. The lawsuit — filed by Shaun McCutcheon, a GOP donor from Alabama, and the Republican National Committee — is based on the argument that the limits (including $46,200 in a two-year cycle from any individual to any one political candidate) are so low that they amount to an unconstitutional obstacle to political expression.

Some see this as a pretty compelling argument. In fact, says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post, now that the Citizens United decision has opened the door to unlimited spending outside the supervision of candidates and political parties, you can make the case that "the campaign contribution limits to candidates and committees are now the source of much of what ails the political process." They restrict the amount donors can give to parties, "traditionally moderating and vetting entities," while letting any crackpot with deep pockets prop up as many "fringe candidates" as he or she likes.

For all the high-minded talk, McCain-Feingold, which put shackles on parties, has promoted extremism, lack of transparency, and corruption. If this is what the Supreme Court is driving at we may witness a complete shake-up (or rather, another one) of the way campaigns are financed.Those who are really interested in a robust political system, but one in which moderation and transparency are encouraged, should root for the dollar limits to be struck down. [Washington Post]

Political candidates have been hitting up supporters for cash for quite some time, but, as the nonpartisan group Democracy 21 notes, a ruling in favor of McCutcheon would "represent the first time in history that the Court declared a federal contribution limit unconstitutional." The contribution limit, enacted in 1974, is necessary to prevent federal officeholders from "soliciting huge corrupting contributions," says Fred Wertheimer, Democracy 21's president.

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Absent the aggregate overall limit on contributions by an individual, President Obama, House Speaker Boehner or any other federal officeholder or candidate would be free to solicit, and an individual free to contribute, a single check to a national party of $1,194,000 for a two-year election cycle...Similarly, President Obama, House Speaker Boehner or any other federal officeholder or candidate could solicit, and an individual could contribute a single check of as much as $2,433,600 to be divided up among every federal candidate in their party running for Congress.This would open the door to $1 million and $2 million dollar contributions from an individual buying corrupting influence with a powerful officeholder soliciting these contributions, and with the political party and federal candidates benefiting from these seven figure contributions. [Democracy 21]

In theory, this case gives the Supreme Court the opportunity to "destroy campaign finance limits," says David Weigel at Slate. Nevertheless, "the recent experience hasn't been good for the let-money-flow crowd." The last court to rule on McCutcheon, the D.C. Circuit, smacked down the case against contribution limits in an opinion written by the "libertarian-minded judge" Janice Rogers Brown, who usually falls to the right of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the high court's swing vote.

And "even if the court issues a narrow ruling in McCutcheon and the RNC's favor," says Adam Winkler at The Daily Beast, this case won't be as earth-shaking as Citizens United. The justices could indeed use the case to continue dismantling the "campaign finance wall first erected in the mid-1970s" by ruling campaign contribution limits unconstitutional. But "while such a ruling undoubtedly would incite claims that the justices had opened up the floodgates for money to influence our elections, that would be hyperbole," Winkler says. "For good or ill, American elections are already flooded with money. The wall has already been breached. How much does it really matter if a few of the remaining stones are carted away?"

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.