Do aggregate limits on individual political contributions substantially burden the First Amendment right to freedom of association?
The Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) regulates contributions to political campaigns through base limits, the amount one person can give to a single candidate, and aggregate limits, the total amount an individual can give to any number of candidates or political committees. Shaun McCutcheon, a contributor to various candidates and organizations, sued the FEC in district court alleging that aggregate limits infringe his First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and association. He argues that aggregate limits are no longer necessary to satisfy the legitimate government purpose of preventing circumvention of base limits. He alleges that aggregate limits are overbroad and that the only purpose they serve is to prevent affluent donors from associating themselves with candidates. The FEC argues that aggregate limits prevent donors from circumventing base limits, reduce the appearance of corruption, and prevent any given donor from exercising impermissible influence over a politician. In September 2012, the district court upheld the aggregate limits, finding the limits constitutionally permissible. The Supreme Court will determine the permissible constitutional balance between the exercise of First Amendment rights through political contributions and the government’s interest in regulating campaign finance law. This implicates the boundaries of the First Amendment, and raises questions about campaign finance, the role of individual donors in politics, and the freedom of association.
Federal law imposes two types of limits on individual political contributions. Base limits restrict the amount an individual may contribute to a candidate committee ($2,500 per election), a national-party committee ($30,800 per calendar year), a state, local, and district party committee ($10,000 per calendar year (combined limit)), and a political-action committee ("PAC") ($5,000 per calendar year). 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(1) (current limits provided). Biennial limits restrict the aggregate amount an individual may contribute biennially as follows: $46,200 to candidate committees; $70,800 to all other committees, of which no more than $46,200 may go to non-national-party committees (e.g., state parties and PACs). 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(3) (current limits provided) (see Appendix at 20a (text of statute)). Appellants present five questions:
- Whether the biennial limit on contributions to non-candidate committees, 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(3)(B), is unconstitutional for lacking a constitutionally cognizable interest as applied to contributions to national-party committees.
- Whether the biennial limits on contributions to non-candidate committees, 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(3)(B), are unconstitutional facially for lacking a constitutionally cognizable interest.
- Whether the biennial limits on contributions to non-candidate committees are unconstitutionally too low, as applied and facially.
- Whether the biennial limit on contributions to candidate committees, 2 U.S. C. 441a(a)(3)(A), is unconstitutional for lacking a constitutionally cognizable interest.
- Whether the biennial limit on contributions to candidate committees, 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(3)(A), is unconstitutionally too low.
- Adam Liptak, New York Times, Justices Take Case on Overall Limit to Political Contributions (Feb. 19, 2013)
- T.W. Farnam, Washington Post, McCutcheon Case Could Give Citizens United a Run For Its Money In Supreme Court (Feb. 20, 2013).
- Paul Blumenthal, Huffington Post, Next Citizens United? McCutcheon Supreme Court case Targets Campaign Contribution Limits (July 31, 2013)