The New York Times

Campaign Donations and Political Corruption

By: Editorial Board

In a deeply worrisome move, the Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear a new campaign finance lawsuit that challenges long-established federal caps on the total amount an individual can contribute to federal campaigns in a two-year cycle. In a ruling last year, a special court in Washington correctly upheld those limits, which in some form have been included in federal law since 1974.

If the justices were to overturn that decision, it would be the first time that the court has struck down a contribution limit as unconstitutional. That would eliminate an essential tool in combating the corrupting effects of money in politics.

Since the court’s landmark 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, it has made a distinction between limits on independent spending by corporations and unions on political campaigns, which it has in various forms found unconstitutional, and limits on direct contributions to campaigns by individuals, which it has largely upheld to prevent corruption or the appearance of it in politics.

This latest case threatens to demolish even the modest control that government has over direct contributions. In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, Shaun McCutcheon, a political activist in Alabama, contributed to 16 different candidates in federal races in 2011-12. He also contributed to the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, a committee called the Senate Conservatives Fund and the federal committee of the Alabama Republican Party.

But he had wanted to donate to 12 other candidates and to contribute up to $25,000 to each of the Republican organizations. Doing so would have violated the overall caps in a two-year cycle — $46,200 on contributions to candidates and their committees and $70,800 on contributions to other political committees. Mr. McCutcheon and his allies are not challenging the limits on contributions to individuals, like $2,500 per election to any candidate. Instead, they contend that aggregate limits are too low and that the caps in general are simply unconstitutional.

Since they did not challenge the individual limits, the court in Washington said that those are “valid expressions of the government’s anticorruption interest.” But without the overall limits, the court said, individuals will find ways to make large contributions to candidates, who “will know precisely where to lay the wreath of gratitude.” To avoid that problem, the court held that Congress has the power to impose those broader limits.

The 2010 Citizens United decision and other rulings since have allowed unlimited independent spending by corporations and unions and individual contributions to political action committees to flow into political campaigns. But, in Citizens United, the court chose not to review limits on contributions.

This case is the first since that ruling for the court to address the constitutionality of caps on donations. It can either recognize the difference between independent spending and contributions or blow up a central piece of what remains of campaign finance regulation.

In reviewing this case, the Supreme Court justices should heed the central message of the Buckley v. Valeo decision. “Congress was surely entitled to conclude,” the court wisely said, that overall limits on contribution are needed “to deal with the reality or appearance of corruption inherent in a system permitting unlimited financial contributions, even when the identities of the contributors and the amounts of their contributions are fully disclosed.”