Today the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, invalidating federal statutory aggregate limits on the amount of money that an individual may contribute to all federal candidates and federal committees. Prior to the Court’s decision, federal law imposed a maximum contribution limit from an individual contributor at $48,600 to federal candidates, and at a total of $74,600 to other federal political committees, such as political parties and political action committees. The constitutionality of the individual contribution limit for federal candidates, which is a combined $5,200 for the primary and general elections, was not before the Court.
The Court held that candidate contributions represent an exercise of free speech and association rights, both protected by the First Amendment. The Court observed that the aggregate limits, combined with the individual candidate contribution limits, would permit a contributor to give maximum contributions to only nine federal candidates. This imposes a burden on a contributor who “must limit the number of candidates he supports, and may have to choose which of several policy concerns he will advance – clear First Amendment harms...”. The Court rejected the government’s argument that limits are necessary to prevent quid pro quo corruption of federal candidates and officers. “The difficulty [with the government’s argument] is that once the aggregate limits kick in, they ban all contributions of any amount... If there is no corruption concern in giving nine candidates up to $5,200 each, it is difficult to understand how a tenth candidate can be regarded as corruptible if given $1,801, and all others corruptible if given a dime.”
McCutcheon represents the latest in a series of cases in which five justices have invalidated campaign finance reforms enacted in the post-Watergate era and by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2003 (also known as “McCain-Feingold”). Although the decision did not disturb the limit on the amount that a donor may give to an individual candidate, many observers contend that a similar First Amendment challenge will soon be before the Court.