Should there be a limit on campaign donations from individuals?
October 10, 2013
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
The Supreme Court revisited the issue of campaign finance in early October, hearing arguments on a case that asks whether there should be a limit on the total amount that an individual can donate to political candidates and political parties during an election cycle.
The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, pits wealthy Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon against the federal agency that monitors and enforces the laws concerning campaign finances.
McCutcheon likes to give money to candidates and political committees. He has donated thousands of dollars to campaigns; campaign finance laws prevent him from contributing more. Federal law limits the total amount that an individual can give during an election cycle.
McCutcheon argues that the money he spends on campaigns is how he voices his public opinion and that his right to free expression is protected by the First Amendment. He says the limit on the aggregate amount, or total amount, of donations infringes on his rights. In 2010, the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that "independent" spending on elections was a form of free speech protected by the Constitution. The decision allowed corporations and unions to spend an unlimited amount on candidate elections.
In 1974, after the fallout from the Watergate scandal, laws were enacted that created the structure for campaign finance regulations. The laws capped the amount that an individual can directly donate to any one candidate or to a political party.
The laws restrict individuals to a total of $123,200 in donations to candidates, national party organizations and certain political committees. Of that $123,200 total, only $48,600 can be donated to candidates. Furthermore, the law sets a limit of $2,600 that a person can give to an individual candidate for federal office for each election cycle. Simply put, a person can legally donate a maximum $2,600 to 18 candidates.
These measures are aimed at reducing the possibility that a wealthy individual essentially pays for a candidate’s victory and later benefits from the lawmaker’s influence.
In 2012, McCutcheon gave about $33,000 to 16 congressional candidates and a similar amount to Republican Party committees. And he wants to be able to give more than the $48,600 for candidates and $70,000 for party committees.
McCutcheon says he is fighting not the amount that a person can give to a candidate, only the aggregate limit. James Bopp Jr., who represents the Republican National Committee, which is also trying to strike down the law, argued before the court, “This is a limit on how many candidates you support, not on how much you give them.”
Bopp went on to say that McCutcheon “holds firm convictions on the proper role of government” and “opposes numerous and ill-conceived and overreaching laws.” Bopp said McCutcheon wants more “federal officeholders who share his beliefs.”
Attorney Fred Wertheimer, a proponent of campaign finance laws, argues that without the limit, “the speaker of the House or the Democratic leader of the House could go to Mr. McCutcheon and ask him for a check for well over $2 million.”
“It is that relationship – that $2 million solicited by a powerful officeholder and given by a donor – that creates the corruption relationship that the court says Congress can prohibit.”
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., representing the Obama administration, which supports campaign donation limits, argued before the court that if the limits were struck down, there would be a real risk of having “a government by and for the 500 people” who will write the $3 million checks to party officials.
“It would be terrible for our democracy ... if one politician could directly solicit $3.6 million from a single donor,” said Lawrence Norden, an election-law expert with the Brennan Center, a liberal legal advocacy group in New York. “That is 70 times the median income for an American family. It would mean a tiny, tiny group of donors would wield unprecedented power and influence.”
What do you think?
Is a campaign donation a form of free speech? Should there be a limit on how much a person can donate to a campaign? Should there be a limit on the total amount that a person can donate to candidates or political parties? Does campaign finance regulation lead to fairer, more open elections?
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