Supreme Court Strikes Down Biennial Aggregate Contribution Limits for Individuals

April 3, 2014

The United States Supreme Court ruled yesterday in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that a provision limiting the overall amounts individuals may contribute biennially to federal candidates, political parties and PACs is unconstitutional. The law’s other contribution limits were unaffected by the Court’s decision.

More specifically, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), as amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), imposes two types of limits on campaign contributions: (1) base limits that restrict how much money a donor may contribute to a particular candidate or political committee, and (2) aggregate biennial limits that restrict how much money an individual may contribute in total each two-year election cycle to all candidates and political committees.

McCutcheon involved a constitutional challenge to the law’s aggregate limits for the 2013-14 election cycle. These limits permit an individual to contribute a total of $123,200 to all federal candidates, party committees and PACs; a total of $48,600 to all federal candidates; and a total of $74,600 to all other federal committees, of which no more than a total of $48,600 may be contributed to PACs and the federal accounts of state or local party committees. The Court voted 5-4 (Justice Thomas concurring) that the aggregate limitations were unconstitutional because they did not further the only legitimate governmental interest recognized by the Court for restricting campaign contributions: preventing quid pro quo corruption or the appearance thereof.

The Court’s ruling means that individuals may now support as many candidates, political parties and PACs as they like, provided they adhere to the base contribution limits applicable to those candidates and committees, which currently are as follows: $2,600 per candidate, per election; $32,400 per calendar year to any national party committee and $5,000 per calendar year to any PAC.

McCutcheon demonstrates the Court’s commitment to its 2010 ruling in Citizens United. In that case, the Court invalidated a provision of FECA prohibiting corporations and labor unions from making independent expenditures, explaining that such expenditures pose no threat of quid pro quo corruption of any candidate because they are made without candidate or party coordination.

The Court’s invalidation of the biennial aggregate limits comes as no surprise after last fall’s oral arguments, when several of the justices expressed skepticism of the government’s contention that the aggregate limits were a statutory safeguard against circumventing the law’s base contribution limits. Indeed, Elliot Berke, co-chair of McGuireWoods political law group, helped prepare an amicus brief filed in connection with the case. But while some legal commentators thought the Court might rule in a way that could jeopardize the constitutionality of the base contribution limits, the plurality’s opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts, seems to go out of its way to avoid this implication, stating that there was no need to revisit the Court’s 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which established the standard of judicial review used by the Court to uphold FECA’s base contribution limits. That is not to say yesterday’s decision will not have broad legal implications, especially for those states that have adopted some form of aggregate contribution limits.

Should you have any questions concerning yesterday’s ruling, please do not hesitate to contact the authors.