Citizens United Part II? Supreme Court takes up direct campaign donations

On Tuesday, the court announced it will take up a case challenging limits on how much individuals can contribute directly to candidates or political parties within an two-year election cycle.

The U.S. Supreme Court will return to the controversial question of campaign finance once again. On Tuesday, the court announced it will take up a case challenging limits on how much individuals can contribute directly to candidates or political parties within an two-year election cycle. Congress put the limits in place in the 1970s in response to the Watergate scandal, as an effort to curb corruption through large political donations. 

A conservative Alabama businessman named Shaun McCutcheon brought the case that the Supreme Court has decided to take up. McCutcheon recently wanted to make contributions to more candidates and more Republican Party committees than is allowed under current limits. He and the Republican National Committee are asking the Supreme Court to consider lifting those limits, on the grounds that they are unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs also argue that in the wake of the court’s ruling in Citizens United three years ago, which removed independent political spending limits on corporations and individuals, more money is now being siphoned away from candidates and political parties and into outside super PACS which are less transparent and harder to hold accountable. They say removing limits on direct contributions to candidates and parties could level the playing field.

That approach amounts to “fighting fire with fire,” says Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Center, a proponent of campaign finance restrictions. Malloy has calculated that without limits on direct contributions, a single person could give almost $3.5 million to a party and its candidates, in total.

“I don’t think a single person can give an eye-popping sum like $3.5 million without raising very serious concerns about what type of influence that person will have over the party and the office holders of that party,” she says.

Bert Johnson, a political science Professor at Middlebury College, says one person giving such vast sums of money is a pretty rare hypothetical. What’s really at stake in this case, Johnson says, is the principal of limiting direct campaign contributions in the first place.

When Congress passed limits after Watergate, Johnson says the country was “worried about corruption and the appearance of corruption, and the Supreme Court said our worries are a good enough reason to limit the contributions to candidates and parties.”

But in recent years, the court has been increasing their scrutiny of campaign contribution limits, and Johnson says the McCutcheon case could signal a further change in the high court's views. 

With the Citizens United case three years ago, the court threw out limits on outside, independent spending for political causes. With this case, the court will consider lifting limits on giving directly to candidates and their parties. And that’s something the court has, until now, been reluctant to do.   

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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