Supreme Court to Rule on Individual Contribution Limits

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether limits on contributions to political candidates is Constitutional.


The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether limits on contributions to political candidates is Constitutional.

WaPo (“Supreme Court to consider limits on individual political contributions“):

The Supreme Court reentered the controversial field of campaign finance Tuesday, agreeing to consider a Republican challenge to decades-old limits on the total amount a person can contribute to candidates, political parties and political action committees.

It is the court’s first major campaign finance case since its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed unlimited corporate and union spending in elections. By extension, the decision led to the creation of super PACs, whose multimillion-dollar donations transformed funding of the 2012 presidential contest.

The new case, which will be heard in the court’s term that begins in October, concerns the federal limit on the amount an individual can contribute to certain campaigns during each election cycle.

For 2013-14, that would be $123,200 — a maximum of $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to political parties and some political action committees.

Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama conservative activist and businessman, brought the lawsuit along with the Republican National Committee because he is seeking to contribute more than those amounts. He is not challenging the limit on the amount he can give to individual candidates, $2,600.


Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance advocate and president of Democracy 21, warned of multimillion-dollar contributions to political parties if the court were to toss out the limits.

But Brad Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics and an opponent of limits, said the Citizens United ruling may lead to the court’s reexamination of the Buckley v. Valeo decision, which justified contribution limits on anticorruption grounds.

“The case gives the court an opportunity to clarify an important legal question: If contribution limits to individual committees and candidates prevent corruption, what additional interest justifies aggregate contributions?” Smith said in a statement.


The case is McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.

I am not a lawyer, do not play one on television, and did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Still, it strikes me that SCOTUS has to either revisit the logic of Citizens United or strike down the restrictions in this case. There’s no obvious free speech distinction between supporting a political party and an interest group. Indeed, a political party is ultimately nothing more than an interest group which seeks to get candidates elected into political office.

Further, to the extent that there’s a competing public policy interest in limiting corruption, it strikes me that it’s actually better served with direct contributions to political parties–which at least fact some indirect public accountability at the ballot box–than donations to blandly named public policy groups whose connections to parties and candidates is murky.

Interestingly, McCutcheon is not challenging the Constitutionality of the antiquated limitations on contributions to political candidates. Presumably, that’s the point where the public corruption argument is the most salient. Certainly, personal fundraising is the part of the system with which I have the most heartburn. But there’s at least full transparency when money goes to an individual politician.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    I see no possible logic behind limiting the free speech of anyone, particularly corporations, by capping their contributions. The Constitution does not limit corporations in any way…in fact doesn’t even mention them. Ipso facto…they should be unfettered…as the founders intended them to be.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Doh…misunderstood the post and thus the case…must…read…slower.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    I’m not a lawyer either, but I do seem to remember from my high school civics that the 1st Amendment was about the government not being able to come after me for saying things the government didn’t like. I don’t remember anything about money being speech. However, I do remember a line from somewhere that the Constitution isn’t a suicide pact.

    I’ll defend Mr. McCutheon’s right to say any silly thing he feels like. I have a real problem with him, and the Koch bros, and Foster Friess, and Adelson, and on, and on, and on, trying to buy a corporatist oligarchy. Democracy in the U. S. is doomed unless we find a way to get most of the money out of it.

  4. stonetools says:

    I assume the Supreme Court will strike down the limits on individual contributions. If so , they should specifically order Congress to pass a law requiring full disclosure of who the donor is
    With the Citizens United Case, the Court acknowledged the poissibility of the corrupting influence of unlimited coroprate contribbutions, but airli waved away the problem by saying, in effect, “of course Congress will pass laws requiring disclosure.”
    What happened ” of course” was that the Republicans blocked efforts to pass such laws-which made the decision look dumber than it was.
    The court can redeem itself this time by mandating that Congress pass full disclosure laws as part of implementing unlimited contributions. I would prefer that the limitations remain, but that won’t happen. If the limitations are struck down, let’s have discloure.

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:


    I assume the Supreme Court will strike down the limits on individual contributions. If so , they should specifically order Congress to pass a law requiring full disclosure of who the donor is

    Time for a basic refresher course in civics, Sparky. You want the SCOTUS to “order Congress” to pass a law? Really? Really?? Separation of powers, much? Provinces of the different branches of government? You do realize, don’t you, that by that same “logic” Congress should be able to “order” the SCOTUS not to strike down one of its laws?


    In any case, it’s hard to envision anything here other than a 5-4 decision striking down those contribution limits. Followed of course by extreme outbursts of lunacy on left-wing blogs and comment sections of blogs in general. C’est la vie.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    It seems to me that all men are created equal in the eyes of the Constitution…and thus our speech should be equal.
    Good for the Kochs that they were born with silver spoons in their mouths and managed to turn them into gold spoons. Good for Romney that he was born on third base and was being waved home by his father.
    That does not entitle them to more speech…within reason…than me.
    We limit many things to preserve the rights of everyone. If you own a factory there are regulations to how much filth you can pump in the air…which preserves my right to clean air. How is that any different than campaign contributions?

  7. James Joyner says:

    @C. Clavin: By that logic, why do journalists and other famous people get much more free speech than normal citizens? George Will gets to publish columns in the Washington Post and go on TV; I don’t. Doesn’t he therefore have much more speech than I do?

  8. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “George Will gets to publish columns in the Washington Post and go on TV; I don’t”

    Sure you do. It’s just that the Washington Post, as a private party, chooses who to give space on their Op-Ed page to. And if the Post should decide not to run his columns anymore (we should all be so lucky), Will can’t claim a violation of his First Amendment rights.

    Unless you want something like the dread Fairness Doctrine, private parties are always going to have the right to make such choices.

  9. stonetools says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    Hey Nicky, the way seperation of powers works in the USA is that the courts have broad powers to affect the implementation of its decisions by the wording of its orders. You might want to Google Brown vs. Board of Education and Miranda vs. Arizona.
    Your welcome for the civics lesson.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: What Moosebreath said. Also, you do have the same Constitutional Right to have columns published in WAPO as George Will, you just failed to exercise that right by not getting the job.

    Actually, why don’t you apply? You’d be better than Will. WAPO and NYT both seem to be having great difficulty finding respectable conservative voices. Take a shot.

  11. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    More pull (listeners) is not actually the same as more push (campaigning).

  12. C. Clavin says:

    @ James…
    Agreed…hence “within reason”.
    To continue my analogy…polluters are allowed some limit of pollution…which society finds within reason…but not unlimited amounts. The SCOTUS has upheld the ability of the EPA to regulate this.
    Switching to your example…G. Will is allowed to spew some amount of filth…but it’s limited. There are limits to how many and what outlets the WaPo can own. The market also functionally limits his reach. Only so many people…and the number keeps getting smaller…are interested in anything G. Will has to say. For either Soros or the Kochs to have absolutely no limits on their reach seems unacceptable to me and dangerous for the Nation.
    But I’m no legal scholar…just a citizen of the Republic.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Moosebreath: @gVOR08: @C. Clavin: Well, what about the owner of a newspaper? Arianna Huffington, Chris Hughes, and Tina Brown all have much more speech, too. And they basically bought it because they had enough money to buy a big megaphone.

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Actually, SCOTUS does this all the time. Legal logic leads them to a conclusion with a lot of nasty side effects. It’s not SCOTUS’s job to mitigate the side effects–it’s up to Congress. SCOTUS points out the problems and says its hands are tied and it’s up to Congress to fix things.

    Hence decisions like Kelo, which was actually completely in the line of cases that had already been decided. If SCOTUS had gone the other way, they would have been acting like an “activist court.”

    I wish non-lawyers would understand Separation of Powers better…..

  15. @Moosebreath:

    The Washington Post is a corporation though. Why should they be allowed to spend millions of dollars publishing editorial opinions they think are important, but Koch Industries cannot spend millions of dollars publishing views they consider important?

    Why is GE, via NBC Universal, allowed to promote their clean energy interests via things like green week, but Exxon-Mobil is not allowed to promote their interests on TV?

    Why is Miramax Films allowed to distribute an anti-Bush film during the 2004 election, but Citizens United is not allowed to distribute and anti-Clinton film during the 2008 election?

  16. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @gVOR08: There’s a decided slant to your list. Would you object if I tossed in George Soros, labor unions, and a long list of Hollywood elites?

    I’m starting to think of political donations like drugs and prostitution. It’s going to happen, and all these attempts just make people work harder to hide their efforts. Just lift the limits — but couple it to very quick public reporting of the donations. If some candidate wants to take $3 million from Soros, fine — just make sure we all know he’s Soros’ buttmonkey.

  17. @gVOR08:

    I don’t remember anything about money being speech.

    If a law was passed saying that anyone is free to get an abortion, but no one may offer or receive payment for providing one, would that be consistent with Roe v. Wade? If someone argued that this made it so hard to get an abortion that it was equivalent to a restriction, would it be fair to characterize their complaint as arguing that “money is an abortion”?

  18. rudderpedals says:

    Now that we’ve made corporations real people as opposed to legal fictions, the next step is to allow corporations the franchise and let them vote. Makes as much sense as treating them as real people for free speech purposes.

    Nevermind the inability to limit campaign contributions from foreigners – even enemy aliens – is hobbled by the loophole allowing enemies to make political contributions so long as it’s through one of the not-quite-charitable charity corporations Citizens United’s awful decision wrought.

  19. C. Clavin says:

    @ James…
    Again…there are limits (although I have no idea about internet outlets? But Huffpost is still limited by the market…as is OTB.
    Look…we have seen this before…Morgan and Carnegie and Rockefeller and those guys bought the Presidency for McKinley. Republicans seem to want to return to that gilded age when a handful of extremely rich men white men ran the country as a plutocracy…unchecked by regulation…much less basic morality.
    History shows what happens when that happens.

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Supreme Court to Rule on Individual Contribution Limits

    Correction: Supreme Court to Rule on Individual Contribution Limits Decide Whether Some People Have More Rights Than Other People.

    FTFY. Happy to be of service, call any time. You’ll get my bill in the mail.

  21. Moosebreath says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    “Why should they be allowed to spend millions of dollars publishing editorial opinions they think are important, but Koch Industries cannot spend millions of dollars publishing views they consider important?”

    They certainly can. Or are you arguing that the airwaves are public property, and we need to give everyone an equal chance to use them (which sounds like the Fairness Doctrine to me).

    @James Joyner:

    “Arianna Huffington, Chris Hughes, and Tina Brown all have much more speech, too. And they basically bought it because they had enough money to buy a big megaphone.”

    And so can anyone else (see Murdoch, Rupert).

    Both of your comments strike me as funny coming from conservatives and libertarians. Historically, it’s been liberals who worry about the corrupting effects of wealth in few hands on our democracy, and want to rein it in.

  22. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: By your logic, nobody should be allowed to donate money to any political cause on the grounds that the poor can’t afford it. I’m uncomfortable with the Sheldon Adelsons of the world having so much ability to try to influence the debate but more uncomfortable with the logic of limiting it. And note that, at the end of the day, nobody bought what he was selling.

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:


    Actually, why don’t you apply? You’d be better than Will. WAPO and NYT both seem to be having great difficulty finding respectable conservative voices. Take a shot.

    I’ll second that motion.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08: @OzarkHillbilly: Thanks. WaPo’s policy seems to be to hire conservatives that make the movement look bad. The most recent hires have been Ben Domenech and Jennifer Rubin.

    @Moosebreath: I’m not complaining about the disparity but rather pointing out that wealth and privilege naturally convey more ability to get one’s message out and asking why some ways are legitimate and others aren’t.

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m uncomfortable with the Sheldon Adelsons of the world having so much ability to try to influence the debate but more uncomfortable with the logic of limiting it.

    James, can you see that unlimited spending by a few has the effect of limiting the speech of others? That we should try to find a balance? If we do not try to find a balance we are ceding the “free market of ideas” to the few (and dog, do I hate that phrase)?

  26. @Moosebreath:

    They certainly can.

    Only because of the Citizen’s United ruling. Prior to that, corporations were arbitrarily divided up into “media” corporations that could spend all the money on political speech they wanted and “non-media” corporations which could not spend any money at all.

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    WaPo’s policy seems to be to hire conservatives that make the movement look bad.

    True. It seems one of their qualifications for employment as a conservative columnist is that you have to foam at the mouth from time to time or be stuck in a 1984 time warp.

  28. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: @Stormy Dragon: @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Issue advocacy is a much thornier issue, but the case is about contributions to candidates and parties. I’m not seeing why it’s difficult or undesirable to limit such contributions. The court worries about the appearance of corruption (I think more than about the actuality of corruption). I don’t think Tina Brown is generating much direct influence over legislators.

    Jenos – actually I had typed in Soros, but deleted him as I didn’t feel I could honestly say Soros was shooting for a corporate oligopoly. Also, I ran short of well known billionaire liberal donors after Soros, whereas I recall a fairly long list of Republicans.

    James – as far as I know, Mellon-Scaife still owns a newspaper and no one’s advocated taking it away from him. There are days I think the old tradition of numerous, competing, blatantly partisan newspapers was better than our current pretense of neutrality.

  29. @gVOR08:

    I should note I don’t have an issue with limits on contributions to candidates or political parties. My complaint is with McCain-Fiengold style limits on independent expenditures.

  30. Laurence Bachmann says:

    @James Joyner: Someone in the private sector has determined George Will is more interesting than you and that his opinion is more valued. Right or wrong that’s a free market decision, not one of constitutional law. Be more interesting to whomever controls these outlets of discussion and you can replace him. Meanwhile you are free to blather on and on endlessly at this blog. As are we all.

  31. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I agree that the speech of those who can buy or command more airtime is unequal. I don’t see a practical way of limiting it or figuring out how the lines are drawn.

    @Laurence Bachmann: Sure. But the free market has made Sheldon Adelson rich. For that matter, I’m not sure why buying a lot of teevee ads is something that needs to be controlled when few seem concerned about the unequal speech power of those who own the teevee stations, newspapers, magazines, and the like. Some simply have a much bigger voice.

  32. Barfour says:

    Why would anyone want more money in politics in America? More importantly, why would anyone want to waste their money on what is more or less nonsense. Does anyone know how much difference the billions that was raised for last year’s elections made? Drum roll……….. they made no difference. The president retained The White House, democrats retained control of the senate and republicans retained control of the house. Mitt Romney and the republicans didn’t even know how to manage or spend the billions they raised, the vast majority of it was wasted.

    If the people who are pouring billions into political campaigns don’t know what to do with their money or how to spend it, they can give it to me. I have a much better idea how to use this money, and I really mean that. I am looking for capital for a business venture and I’ve been literally begging people to invest in it, not just money, I’ve asked people to invest their time. I’ve offered the option of coming on as an informal occasional advisor in exchange for sharing the potential benefits of my business venture, but no one has taken that offer. If I had capital, I’d have been able to hire the personnel I need. I apologize for going slightly off topic, but I am asking everyone to believe me when I say that the money that is being poured into politics can be much better spent in ways that can have huge benefits for A LOT of people. I know that it’s their own money and they can use it as they wish but this money is an enormous asset, it should be used in the most positive way.

  33. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    I’m not sure it’s quite right to argue that all the money spent in the election last year didn’t matter. Seems to me that all the money spent cancelled each other out, since both sides spent obscene amounts. But if one candidate has a lopsided money advantage it very well could make a difference. You see that all the time in smaller races at the state level, where you see names on the ballot that you never saw an ad or even a yard sign for. Who knows what they stand for, so they sure don’t get my vote.

    Money is always going to equal access and “speech”, as much as I hate that it does. Like it or not, every contribution to a candidate or cause allows that candidate/cause to use the funds to spread their message. Their may not be a hard and fast and timeless principle available that can define “here is where we draw the line” but that just strikes me as another one of life’s grey areas that society should define, rather than throwing hands up in the air and saying it can’t be done.

    If you believe (as I do) that unlimited contributions are a problem because they allow a small group to offset millions of people who aren’t billionaires with money to burn, then the question really becomes how much more influence should wealth allow (like I said above, it can’t be stopped completely, unless we go to some sort of public financing, and even that only works for candidates not causes)? If a median income voter can afford $20 or $50 or whatever, should the max “influence” of any one person be set at 10 times that? 100? 1000? 10000? We do limit speech under certain circumstances (the famous “fire” in a crowded theater example), so in my mind the Court should allow limits without themselves defining what the dollar limit is (that should be up to Congress).

    Now leaving it up to Congress is still pretty impractical (particularly this Congress and the last several) but I find that a more acceptable theory than saying we can’t limit it at all because money=speech so it’s inviolate.

  34. Rob in CT says:

    Having gone around and around on this before, I keep coming to the same place:

    The whole thing depresses me, for one. But second – DISCLOSURE. Basically, while I’m not the slightest bit happy about it (I’d prefer to find a workable way to reduce the influence of $ on politics), my position mirrors Jenos’. Every time the topic comes up, and spend some time trying to work out something that would improve matters, and in the end the only thing left standing is disclosure.

  35. Andre Kenji says:

    I live in Brazil, that has heavy legal restrictions on campaign finances. That means that donating to campaigns is heavily restricted, TV ads are heavily regulated(Each party get a “free” airtime from the televisions and they can´t have more airtime than time). Since normal TV programming can be considered “political advertising” many TV shows and magazines tries to ignore politics, and so, no wonder that the average Brazilian is apathetic and cynical regarding politics.

    And since there are many restrictions that means that judges and prosecutors are deciding elections(Several the times the runner up wins the elections because the winner was considered to running a campaign that had irregularities ). And I think that´s important for normal people to participate in the political process. The Brazilian experience shows that corrupt politicians are the big winner when they don´t have to face criticisms from normal citizens.

    I understand that the flood of private money is destroying American Politics. But on the other hand heavy restrictions on campaigns are undemocratic and they damage the political system.

  36. the Q says:

    What is a bribe then? Why are bribes outlawed and “free speech political contribution” money isn’t?

    What is the difference really?

    “Bribery is an act of giving money or gift giving that alters the behavior of the recipient.”

    Black’s Law Dictionary definition has it “as the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of any item of value to influence the actions of an official or other person in charge of a public or legal duty.

    So Sheldon Adelson wasn’t supporting Romney to get him to support Israel more than Obama and this contribution didnt’ alter the behavior of the recipient?

    Some countries outlaw contributions because they are classified as bribery.

    Judges in the US will often recuse themselves if a case involves this conflict of interest, yet the legislators can vote on issues which directly influence their contributors by stating the money received was a “contribution” and not a “bribe”.

    If I take a gal out to a dinner and the opera, spend $300, then have sex with her, this is legal. If I pick her up on the street and pay her $300 and we have sex, then its prostitution.

    Similarly, if I give a politician $$$ directly, this is a bribe, if I donate to his PAC, its a “donation.”

    See craigslist ads for these carefully worded distinctions when we all know what is really happening.

    Then apply it to this topic.

  37. Argon says:

    What this means is that you should buy stock in companies that own TV and radio stations just prior to election years because their ad incomes are going to rocket in those years.

    I wonder if there is a market for advertising revenue futures…

  38. socraticsilence says:

    Living in a state which had its century-old campaign finance law struck down (MT) I have to ask is the Robert’s courts willfully ignorant or just blatantly dishonest- because in striking the law down they specifically noted that there was no major historical examples of campaign finance corrupting the political process, a statement that, given the well recognized grounding of Montana’s campaign finance laws, is either a lie or a sign of sheer ineptitude.

    Frankly, given the obvious political/philosophical bias of the court if one is arguing before them in favor of restrictions on campaign finance I see no reason not to go down in a blaze of glory and gun for a contempt citation- when’s the last time the USSC issued one?

  39. socraticsilence says:

    @James Joyner:

    Actually, Adelson represents a risk that I think even conservatives should be able to recognize- one of his main income streams is gaming, specifically gaming which exists only with permission of a major near-peer competitor to the United States in a way much more troubling than simply making money from trade with China.