On April 2, 2014, the Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The lawsuit was initiated by a campaign donor who alleged that existing campaign finance laws prevented him from contributing to as many federal candidates as he wished to support. Specifically, 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(3) imposed an aggregate limit on how much money a donor could contribute in total to all candidates or committees. The Supreme Court held that this aggregate limit violates the First Amendment.
Notably, the so-called “base limits” that limit the amount that a donor can contribute to a particular candidate or committee were not at issue and therefore remain valid. Thus, even now, a donor may contribute only a certain amount to any particular candidate or political committee (for the 2013–2014 election cycle, the limit is $2,600 per election to a candidate, $32,400 per year to a national party committee, $10,000 per year to a state or local party committee, and $5,000 per year to a political action committee). Base limits do not appear to be in imminent danger either, as only Justice Thomas signaled a willingness to discard them. Rather, the import of the McCutcheon decision is that a donor’s aggregate contributions can no longer be capped. Thus, a donor may contribute the base limit to as many candidates and committees as it wishes.
The McCutcheon decision owes much of its philosophical underpinning to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, although that decision was limited to campaign expenditures rather than contributions. As in Citizens United, the Court (or more accurately, a plurality of the Court) reaffirmed that the only valid “compelling government interest” in the campaign finance arena is the interest in preventing corruption and the appearance thereof. Similarly, as in Citizens United, the Court exhibited skepticism of the government’s anti-circumvention justifications and took a narrow view of what regulations can withstand First Amendment scrutiny based on an asserted government interest of preventing only the “appearance of corruption.” The McCutcheon decision indicates that Citizens United is here to stay, at least while the current membership of the Supreme Court remains static. What remains to be seen is how the Supreme Court will apply the approach it adopted in Citizens United and McCutcheon going forward, as other existing campaign finance regulations are challenged and as new ones are likely created in response to those decisions.