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McCutcheon v. FEC: Supreme Court Finds Aggregate Biennial Limits Unconstitutional

On April 2, 2014, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC that struck down the aggregate limits on the amount an individual may contribute during a two-year period to all federal candidates, parties and political action committees combined. By a vote of 5-4, the Court ruled that the biennial aggregate limits are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Background
In 2012, Alabama resident Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee (together, plaintiffs) filed suit against the Commission challenging the Federal Election Campaign Act’s (the Act) biennial limits on an individual’s combined contributions to federal candidates, parties, and PACs. 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(3)(A) and (B).

By law, the biennial aggregate limits are indexed for inflation every two years. In 2011-12, the overall limit was $117,000, of which no more than $46,200 could go to federal candidates and $70,800 to PACs and party committees. Of the PAC/party total, no more than $46,200 could go to state and local party committees and PACs. The remainder was set aside for the national party committees.[FN1]

Mr. McCutcheon contributed to 16 different federal candidates during the 2012 elections, complying with the base limits applicable to each (i.e., $2,500 per candidate, per election). He argued that the aggregate biennial limits prevented him from contributing to another 12 federal candidates and to a number of non-candidate political committees, including the Republican National Committee.

The plaintiffs filed a complaint before a three-judge District Court, asserting that the aggregate limits were unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The District Court denied their motion for a preliminary injunction and granted the Commission’s motion to dismiss. The Supreme Court’s decision reverses the District Court’s decision and remands the case.

Supreme Court Decision
In the Court’s plurality opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute. Our cases have held that Congress may regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption. See, e.g., Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 26-27 (1976) (per curiam).”

Roberts went on to write, “Congress may target only a specific type of corruption—‘quid pro quo’ corruption . . . Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties.”

As a result, the Court concluded that “the aggregate limits on contributions do not further the only governmental interest this Court accepted as legitimate in Buckley. They instead intrude without justification on a citizen’s ability to exercise ‘the most fundamental First Amendment activities.’”

While the Court’s decision removes the overall cap on individual contributions, it does not affect the Act’s base limits on individual contributions to federal candidate campaigns, PACs or party committees. Currently, individuals may contribute up to $2,600 per election to a federal candidate, $10,000 per calendar year to a state party committee, $32,400 per calendar year to a national party committee and $5,000 per calendar year to a PAC.

The text of the Supreme Court’s opinion is available here.

U.S. Supreme Court No. 12-536.

1 For 2013-14, the overall limit increased to $123,200, of which no more than $48,600 could go to candidates and $74,600 to PACs and party committees.

(Posted 4/15/2014; By: Alex Knott)

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The FEC Record is produced by the Information Division, Office of Communications. Toll free 800-424-9530; Local 202-694-1100; E-mail info@fec.gov. Greg Scott, Director; Alex Knott, Senior Writer/Editor; Dorothy Yeager, Production Manager