Supreme Court Strikes Down Federal Contribution Limits

A strategy as risky as integration can only succeed when it is chosen for the right reasons.

November 2014 | by David Delaney

The United States Supreme Court today (April 2, 2014) in a 5-4 decision authored by Chief Justice Roberts invalidated the federal law restriction that previously limited individuals to aggregate contributions to all Federal candidates, committees and political parties to $123,200 for a two-year election cycle. Today's Court decision in McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission stated that such limits “intrude without justification on a citizen's ability to express the most fundamental First Amendment activities.” The Court further found that, given the mismatch between the Government’s stated governmental objective and the means selected to achieve it, the aggregate limits fail to survive Constitutional scrutiny.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), as amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), restricts individual contributions in two ways—first by setting a maximum individual contribution to candidates (currently $2,600 per election), national political party committees (currently $32,400 per calendar year) and any other federal political action committee or PAC ($5,000 per calendar year); and second by capping the aggregate of an individual’s contributions to all candidates ($48,600 for 2013-14) and PACs and political parties ($74,600 for 2013-14). The Court found that contributing money to candidates is a core aspect of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political expression and political association, both of which are protected by the First Amendment.

In reaching its decision, the Court analyzed and left intact the seminal campaign finance case Buckley v Valeo, 424 US 1, concluding that Buckley’s conclusion regarding the FECA’s aggregate limit does not control in the instant case. Rather, the Court found that a restriction on how many candidates and committees an individual may support is more than a “modest restraint” of First Amendment rights. In contextualizing the decision with other First Amendment protections, the Court explained that “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.”

Corporate Spending in Elections

Attempts to limit the influence of money on American political campaigns date back to the 1860s. Since the Supreme Court overturned much of the legislation regulating campaign contributions, Super PACS have proliferated, and concern over the influence corporations have on elections is growing. Our experts examine campaign finance legislation and the impact it can have on political outcomes.

The use of economic resources to support election campaigns is an essential ingredient of democratic competition. Often viewed as a malady of democracy, campaign finance is actually part of the normal workings of democratic life. However, it is indisputable that money is capable of inflicting significant distortions on politics and policymaking. When there is a failure to regulate money in the political process or existing regulation is ineffectual, the legitimacy of democratic processes can be jeopardized.

The testimony, submitted by some of the country's most knowledgeable political scientists and most experienced politicians, constitutes an invaluable body of knowledge about the complexities of campaign finance and the role of money in our political system.


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