The Supreme Court's decision Tuesday to hear a case that could fundamentally alter campaign finance law in the United States is being met with some concern by groups who fear any loosening of caps that limit how much people can donate directly to candidates or a party will result in increased political corruption.
The case, brought by Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, challenges the limit placed on how much individuals can give directly to candidates or parties in total. He appealed to the top court after lower courts ruled the caps constitutional. The limits—currently $46,200 in total contributions to candidates and $70,800 for groups—are too low, McCutcheon argues. Donors are also capped on how much they can give directly to individual candidates; that limit is $2,500 but McCutcheon's case does not challenge that part of the law.
Money in politics was a hot topic during the 2012 election cycle, as another Supreme Court ruling—known as Citizens United—opened the floodgates for unions and companies to give unlimited amounts to outside spending groups, so-called Super PACs. Democrats, though they at first decried the practice, eventually joined their Republican counterparts in using the outside groups to help their candidates and promote issue positions.
Republicans are again on the side of more campaign spending, signing on in support of McCutcheon.
"The aggregate limits on contributions to campaigns and parties are arbitrary and unjustified, and we look forward to asking the Supreme Court to remove these limits and take a small step in restoring the First Amendment rights of the parties, our candidates and our supporters," said Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
A call to the Democratic National Committee was not immediately returned.
Tara Malloy, senior counsel at of the Campaign Legal Center, a group that wrote a brief in support of the limits when the case was at the district court level, says though the Citizens United decision allowed for a flood of campaign spending, all donations are not equal when it comes to corrupting influence.
"Contribution limits were considered a lesser burden on speech because it wasn't really your own speech, you were funding somebody else's speech," she says, referring to past court decisions. "The court also found that it was much more directly tied to corruption concerns. So the court has always been much more willing to accept contribution limits."
Malloy says the contribution caps were passed in the 1970s as part of the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms.
"The point of this limit is to ensure that nobody in a total sense gives so many limited contributions to a party or to the party's candidates that they gain undue influence over such party or can buy access or control over the party structure or their candidates; a second backstop against corruption when it comes to direct giving," she says.
And while Citizens United marked a willingness by the court to support money as a form of speech, Malloy says the ruling itself gives no indication the same five conservative justices believe the spending caps, which have been upheld in a 1976 case, should be scrapped.
"Citizens United is absolutely consistent with contribution limits in the sense that the court repeatedly distinguished a limit on direct giving with a limit on independent spending," she says.
But she does acknowledge the 2010 ruling is a bellwether of sorts.
"Now Citizens United might have indicated that overall the five conservative justices are very skeptical of campaign finance law in general and certainly seem to have the appetite for overturning past precedent to clear the way as what they see as free speech activities," she says.