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Rules of the Game: Some Say Nixing Contribution Limits Will Level Playing Field

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney wants to toss out federal contribution limits to candidates so they can raise unlimited cash like super PACs.

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has said that unrestricted super PACs are a “disaster” and should “disappear” — including the one that’s spent close to $8 million pummeling his GOP primary opponents.

But his solution — to toss out federal contribution limits so candidates, too, can raise unlimited cash — has only intensified the controversy over the pro-Romney Restore Our Future political action committee and the future of campaign financing.

The former Massachusetts governor has put his finger on the key question hanging over the two-year anniversary of the landmark Citizens United ruling to deregulate campaign spending. That is, how long can the few remaining election laws withstand the tide of big money, ushering in a system of total deregulation?

Reform advocates argue that voters want strict new rules, not more big spending, and have organized hundreds of protests in the coming days to call for a constitutional amendment that would reverse Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, decided on Jan. 21, 2010. They point to the Occupy Wall Street movement as evidence that Americans are eager for fresh curbs on corporate political influence.

“I believe that the American people are outraged by what they properly perceive to be the corporate capture of Washington,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, which has helped stage the protests.

But Weissman acknowledged that Romney isn’t the only one attacking contribution limits. Indeed, First Amendment champions are well into a methodical legal campaign to challenge the constitutionality of limits on contributions to political candidates and parties. Now that outside groups can raise and spend unrestricted money, they argue, candidates and parties should be free to compete on the same terms.

In election law circles, all eyes are on United States v. Danielczyk, a lower court case that challenges the existing ban on direct federal contributions to candidates. It’s one of dozens of lawsuits assailing both disclosure laws and contribution limits at the state level. If the Danielczyk case makes its way to the high court, Romney’s theory that candidates should be free to raise big money outside the rules will be put to the test.

“Whether or not the court will have the appetite to take [up] that issue is the biggest unanswered question right now in campaign finance jurisprudence,” said Richard Hasen, a political science and law professor at the University of California, Irvine. If the Supreme Court sides with the challengers, it would topple a federal ban on direct corporate contributions that dates to 1907.

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