Supreme Court strikes down aggregate limits on campaign contributions on First Amendment grounds

Until today there were two limits on donating to candidates. One was the base limit, the cap on the amount you can give to any single candidate. The other was the aggregate limit, a cap on the total amount you can give to all candidates. Right now you’re capped at $48,600 when donating directly to candidates and $123,200 total, including party committees; if you want to give more than that, too bad. The base limit is there to prevent you from dropping $10 million on a congressman, essentially buying his seat for him, and then having him do your bidding forever. It’s supposed to be a stumbling block to corruption. The aggregate limit is there because … I’m not sure why, and neither are the five conservatives on the Supreme Court. The theory, I guess, is that if you’re free to donate an amount equal to the base limit to, say, every Republican running for Congress, you can have the GOP as a party do your bidding forever. Of course, you can already kinda sorta do that by donating unlimited amounts to Super PACs working to help the GOP.


The question, then: Is the aggregate limit sufficiently useful in preventing corruption that it justifies limiting people’s right to political speech to protect it? Nope, says SCOTUS.

The court was divided over how sweeping the ruling actually is. The biggest impact is that a single donor can now give the maximum amount by law to as many federal candidates, parties and committees as he or she wishes.

The 5-4 split was along party lines, with the five justices appointed by Republican presidents joining the majority and the four appointed by Democratic presidents dissenting.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing on behalf of the court, said the justices did not reach the question of whether to overturn a key 1976 ruling, called Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld limits on campaign finance donations while also describing how courts should analyze such regulations. Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted with Roberts, said the court had gone further than the chief justice claimed…

The caps “do little, if anything, to address that concern, while seriously restricting participation in the democratic process,” wrote Roberts, appointed by former President George W. Bush, a Republican.

Here’s the opinion, which clocks in at a cool 40 pages. If you want the basics, stick with the syllabus on pages 2-6. Roberts’s nutshell version of the First Amendment rationale:



Thomas, who concurred in the judgment, argued that Roberts’s First Amendment reasoning should lead the Court to strike down base limits on contributions too so that everyone can donate directly to candidates as much as they like. That question wasn’t at issue in this case but maybe it will be soon enough: Roberts’s point on pages 18-21 about donors buying “general influence” with a candidate, which is permissible, versus impermissible “quid pro quo corruption” in which the donor contributes money in exchange for something up front does seem to anticipate some loosening of the rules around base limits too. As long as there’s no quid pro quo, why can’t a billionaire dump a million dollars on a candidate to exercise a little “influence”?

The upshot here is that you’re going to hear even more screeching about the Koch brothers buying elections from Harry Reid and the rest of the Democrats, even as lefty billionaires like Soros and Tom Steyer start maxing out donations to every Democratic candidate for Congress in America. The other takeaway, ironically, is that this might produce more accountability in campaign finance compared to what we have now. One of the big knocks on Super PACs is that their donors can legally conceal their names; donors to candidates’ campaigns can’t. In the past, if you were rich and wanted to donate more than the aggregate limit on campaign donations, Super PACs were your main option. Now that wealthy donors no longer have to worry about the aggregate limit and can give directly to as many candidates as they want, their donations will be reported under disclosure rules.


Update: Good point from Gabe Malor about Breyer’s dissent:

Update: Newt joins Thomas:

If the Court opposes donation limits but supports transparency, nudging donors towards a more transparent method of contributing is a logical next step.

Update: Interesting point. If wealthy Republicans tend to donate to establishment candidates, who are the big losers today?

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