Campaign limits lifted for donors in federal races

By Michael Doyle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Published: Wednesday, April 2 2014 3:29 p.m. MDT

The Supreme Court on Wednesday further opened up the taps for political campaign contributions, with a bombshell ruling that removes long-standing limits on how much total money an individual can contribute to federal candidates.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday further opened up the taps for political campaign contributions with a bombshell ruling that removes long-standing limits on how much total money an individual can contribute to federal candidates.

In what amounted to a 5-4 decision, the court’s conservatives declared that the aggregate contribution limits imposed four decades ago violated the First Amendment’s free-speech protections. Though individual donations may still be limited, the ruling frees donors to spread their wealth across as many candidates as they can find.

That means a wealthy individual could start contributing more than $3.5 million to party committees and candidates over two years.

“They … intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise the most fundamental First Amendment activities,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote of the aggregate contribution limits.

The decision erases the aggregate limit of $123,200 for a two-year election cycle.

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a lawyer specializing in Federal Elections Commission issues, said the ruling will likely have little effect in Utah.

"For the most part, this will not impact Utah and will not help Utah candidates," Jowers said.

There are only a handful of major political donors in the state, such as Jon Huntsman Sr., he said.

The candidates most likely to benefit from the ruling are those who already hold leadership positions in Washington, Jowers said, possibly creating "more boss-style politicking" that hurts those who haven't reached those ranks.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, praised the decision. Hatch has called limits on campaign contributions inconsistent with First Amendment rights to free speech.

"Today's decision is a victory for all Americans and for the free speech protections that individuals of every political stripe hold dear," he said, adding that the decision will help ensure "robust political participation and debate."

Roberts’ 40-page opinion, joined in full by three other conservative justices, continues the court’s dismantling of congressional efforts to overhaul campaign financing. Its constitutional reasoning may leave the remaining campaign-finance restrictions at risk, and it prompted demonstrations in cities from Tampa, Fla., to Tacoma, Wash.

The court’s four Democratic appointees dissented from the conservative majority’s opinion.

“It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote. “It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.”

The ruling in the case, called McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, was not unexpected, given prior court decisions, but it had been highly anticipated ever since oral arguments were heard last October. Advocates from all sides were primed to respond quickly, and for most part predictably.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the ruling an “important first step toward restoring the voice of candidates and party committees and a vindication for all those who support robust, transparent political discourse.”

The RNC raised $409 million during the 2012 election cycle.

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, of New York, though himself an aggressive fundraiser, denounced the ruling as “another step on the road to ruination.” Schumer has $11 million sitting in his campaign treasury.

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