Free-for-all: Supreme Court strikes down overall limit on campaign giving

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“It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign,” Justice Breyer wrote in an opinion joined by the other three liberal-leaning justices. “Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election [Commission], today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

Defenders of the campaign finance law couldn’t pinpoint where corruption would begin but offered hypothetical situations that they said were clearly over the line.

They said a donor now could give the maximum to every political candidate and party, amounting to $3.5 million, which could be redistributed to other campaigns by the candidates and the parties.

Strict campaign finance advocates said they feared those candidates and parties could collude and siphon the money to a single candidate whom the donor had wanted to benefit in the first place, which effectively would break the contribution limit.

“We think the risk of corruption is real,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. told the justices when the case was argued in October.

The Sunlight Foundation, which criticized the decision, has crunched numbers on 20 wealthy donors who it said are most likely to take advantage of the end of the aggregate limit. Of those, 13 were identified as Republicans and four were Democrats.

Wednesday’s ruling could strengthen political parties and congressional leaders, whose levers of power would diminish as their fundraising abilities dry up. Meanwhile, outside groups have been unshackled.

Analysts said the decision could persuade wealthy donors to contribute to more parties and to more leaders’ political action committees.

The court issued the ruling four years after deciding the Citizens United case, another 5-4 ruling that opened the door for interest groups to spend unlimited money on issue ads, though their contributions to candidates were limited.

Liberal activists declared the ruling Wednesday in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission the next major battle, though it is likely to affect far fewer people than did the Citizens United decision.

The ruling leaves intact the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which first ruled that Congress could limit campaign finance donations.

Justice Thomas, in his opinion, said the cracks in that landmark decision are showing.

“I regret only that the plurality does not acknowledge that today’s decision, although purporting not to overrule Buckley, continues to chip away at its footings,” Justice Thomas wrote. “In sum, what remains of Buckley is a rule without a rationale. Contributions and expenditures are simply ‘two sides of the same First Amendment coin,’ and our efforts to distinguish the two have produced mere ‘word games’ rather than any cognizable principle of constitutional law.”

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