In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that caps on aggregate campaign contributions are unconstitutional, but left in place limits on individual donations to candidates.
At question in the case of McCutcheon v. FEC were overall limits on giving to candidates, political action committees and parties.
Those caps were put into place in the wake of the Watergate scandal and as of 2013 limited donors to a grand total of $123,200 in contributions over a two-year period, including a ceiling of $48,600 to federal candidates and a $74,600 maximum on contributions to parties and PACs. That would mean a donor could give the maximum $2,600 individual contribution to 18 congressional candidates before hitting the limit.
Under Wednesday’s ruling, donors can now give up to the maximum $2,600 individual contribution to as many federal candidates as they choose.
Chief Justice John Roberts, backed by three other Republican-appointed justices, wrote the majority opinion in the case.
Roberts acknowledged that “Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption” and that “money in politics may at times seem repugnant,” but argued “the aggregate limits do little, if anything, to address (quid pro quo corruption), while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process.”
Justice Clarence Thomas, also appointed by a Republican president, joined Roberts in the majority, but produced his own opinion in which he said he would have gone even further and done away with limits on campaign contributions entirely.
Justice Stephen Breyer issued a highly critical dissenting opinion on behalf of himself and the three other members appointed by Democratic presidents, saying the majority decision “eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a chief sponsor of the landmark Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, said he was disappointed by the case’s outcome.
“I predict that as a result of recent court decisions, there will be scandals involving corrupt public officials and unlimited, anonymous campaign contributions that will force the system to be reformed once again,” McCain said.
However, Republican U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who had filed a brief with the court in support of doing away with aggregate contribution limits, said the ruling “reminded Congress that Americans have a constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice.”
Campaign-finance reform advocates expressed dismay over the ruling, saying it echoed the court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which struck down limits on independent spending by corporations in elections.
“Today’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC is Citizens United round two, further opening the floodgates for the nation’s wealthiest few to drown out the voices of the rest of us,” said Miles Rapoport, president of Common Cause.
Full audio of oral arguments in the McCutcheon case, held in October of last year, can be heard below, courtesy of VoterRadio.com: