The Supreme Court Rules Campaign Limits Are for Losers

In McCutcheon v. FEC, conservative justices killed post-Watergate caps on how much one person can give to multiple politicians. They’re not done yet.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

Finally, you can give more than $123,000 to political parties, committees, and a bunch of candidates.

The Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision Wednesday in McCutcheon v. FEC overturned a law enacted after Watergate that allowed the federal government to cap how much an individual could give to multiple federal candidates and committees in a single campaign cycle.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts cited the Court’s previous 5-4 ruling in 2010’s Citizens United—and that decision’s creation of super PACs—as reason to invalidate the aggregate limits. Roberts wrote in McCutcheon:

“The existing aggregate limits may in fact encourage the movement of money away from entities subject to disclosure. Because individuals’ direct contributions are limited, would-be donors may turn to other avenues for political speech.”

In the dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer railed against the majority’s decision. In a once rare, but increasingly common gesture, Breyer read from his dissent from the bench to signal his discontent with Roberts’s opinion. Breyer argued:

“The result, as I said at the outset, is a decision that substitutes judges’ understandings of how the political process works for the understanding of Congress; that fails to recognize the difference between influence resting upon public opinion and influence bought by money alone; that overturns key precedent; that creates huge loopholes in the law; and that undermines, perhaps devastates, what remains of campaign finance reform.”

Breyer also noted that McCutcheon, which was being appealed from a district court where it was promptly dismissed, shouldn’t have even been decided but instead remanded back to the lower court for further evidence to be heard. The longtime justice, appointed by President Clinton, added a lengthy appendix of evidence he found relevant to his dissent.

The Court’s holding is not likely to have as significant an effect on the political landscape as Citizens United did. The McCutcheon decision will allow individual donors to make direct contributions to an unlimited number of candidates and committees but still within the still existing individual donation limits. This means that combining candidates and party committees alone (and not donations to independent political action committees), individuals can now give at least $3.5 million in regular contributions. The decision will also mean that state limits on aggregate donations are likely to disappear in future cases, which could have even more significant and unanticipated effects.

But while the decision will allow more money to flow to parties and perhaps reduce the role of super PACs as a result, it’s most important role is the signal it sends about the future of campaign finance law.

The Roberts Court has consistently rolled back limitations on campaign expenditures, and this decision marks the collapse of another part of the framework imposed by Congress after Watergate and greatly altered by the Court in the 1976 decision of Buckley v. Valeo. In his concurring opinion, Clarence Thomas called for the invalidation of any limits on campaign donations. Further, throughout his majority opinion, Roberts hailed how improvements in disclosure of contributions online made it that much easier to avoid the corruption, or the appearance of corruption, which campaign finance laws are meant to prevent.

This doesn’t mean the Court will suddenly strike down all limitations on campaign donations soon. Campaign finance laws won’t die. Instead, like Douglas MacArthur’s old soldier, it seems the Roberts Court will simply allow them to fade way.