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Supreme Court Rejects Aggregate Contribution Limits

Campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer speaks at the Supreme Court after McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission arguments last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated, 11:45 a.m. | In a long-awaited ruling in the case known as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court today struck the aggregate limit on campaign contributions as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.  

Significantly, the high court left in place the base limit on how much individuals and political action committees may give to candidates and political parties. But today’s ruling makes a challenge to that direct contribution limit, which stands at $2,600 per election for an individual, all but inevitable in the near future.  

What the court overturned today was the overall limit on the amount that one individual may give to candidates, parties and PACs in a two-year election cycle, a cap that now stands at $123,000. Republican businessman Shaun McCutcheon had challenged the aggregate limit on the grounds that giving the same amount to a larger number of candidates would not invite corruption. In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who had been considered the swing vote in the case, the Supreme Court agreed. As in its landmark Citizens United v. FEC ruling in 2010, the court concluded that limits on political money may only pass constitutional muster if they present a direct threat of quid pro quo corruption — a high bar that signals this court will remain receptive to future challenges to the few campaign restrictions that remain.  

“There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” wrote Roberts. Quoting from the Citizens United ruling opinion that “ingratiation and access … are not corruption,” Roberts went on to state: “Any regulation must instead target that we have called ‘quid pro quo’ corruption or its appearance. That Latin phrase captures the notion of a direct exchange of an official act for money.”  

Conservatives on and off Capitol Hill hailed the ruling as a victory for the First Amendment.  

“What I think this means is, freedom of speech is being upheld,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters at a Wednesday morning press conference just moments before the decision was handed down. “You all have the freedom to write what you want to write, donors ought to have the freedom to give what they want to give.”  

Boehner added, "I'm all for freedom. ... Congratulations."  

Boehner also panned the McCain-Feingold landmark campaign finance overhaul legislation as "bizarre," and one that has "distorted the political process."  

Across the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has been deeply involved in campaign finance issues, also applauded the decision.  

"The Supreme Court has once again reminded Congress that Americans have a Constitutional First Amendment right to speak and associate with political candidates and parties of their choice," McConnell said in a statement.  

Center for Competitive Politics Chairman Bradley Smith, a former GOP chairman of the FEC, declared in a statement: “Today is a good day for democracy. The court has put some teeth into the requirement that campaign contributions must have a legitimate anti-corruption purpose. This will make it easier for candidates and parties to raise funds, and that is also a good thing.”  

But not all Republicans were applauding. McCain, who co-authored that 2002 ban on unrestricted “soft” money donations to the parties, called the opinion “tragic.” Asked about the ruling, the Arizona Republican replied: “What can I say? I think it’s really the worst. I think it’s a terrible decision, but I’m not surprised given their decision in Citizens United.”  

And advocates of campaign finance limits warned that the ruling would open the floodgates once again to the soft money that McCain and his Democratic ally, then-Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, banned in 2000. Progressive activists warned that federal officials will now be free to raise millions from big donors at a pop under the guise of collecting individual checks for campaign committees and candidates.  

“The Supreme Court in the McCutcheon decision today overturned 40 years of national policy and 38 years of judicial precedent to strike down the overall limits on the total contributions from an individual to federal candidates and to party committees in an election cycle,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer in a statement. “With its decision today in McCutcheon , the Supreme Court majority continued on its march to destroy the nation’s campaign finance laws, which were enacted to prevent corruption and protect the integrity of our democracy.”  

Emma Dumain and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.