The Next Campaign Finance Fight

People file out of the Supreme Court after the morning session hearing arguments on the Affordable Care Act on Wednesday, march 28, 2012, the last day of hearings. 
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
April 3, 2014, 7:40 a.m.

In the short run, yes­ter­day’s much-hyped Su­preme Court rul­ing won’t mean much. Elim­in­at­ing over­all con­tri­bu­tion lim­its will give the party com­mit­tees and can­did­ates a little ex­tra cash in their pock­et, but the cam­paign fin­ance land­scape is largely the same as it was when Wed­nes­day began. It’s what might come next that would fun­da­ment­ally upend the cam­paign fin­an­cing sys­tem. The at­tor­neys and ex­perts study­ing yes­ter­day’s Mc­Cutcheon v. FEC rul­ing sug­gest it could make vul­ner­able one of the bed­rock rules of the cam­paign fin­ance sys­tem: Caps on in­di­vidu­al con­tri­bu­tions to parties and can­did­ates.

— Mc­Cu­theon is sig­ni­fic­ant, at­tor­neys say, be­cause it’s one of the first cases to fo­cus on con­tri­bu­tions, not ex­pendit­ures (the fo­cus of Cit­izens United and oth­er cases). As one GOP fin­ance at­tor­ney put it, cam­paign fin­ance re­lies on three ele­ments: rules gov­ern­ing ex­pendit­ures, con­tri­bu­tions, and dis­clos­ure. The courts have ripped apart most ex­pendit­ure reg­u­la­tions; the fear among re­form ad­voc­ates is now they’ve turned their at­ten­tion to con­tri­bu­tions.

— Those same ad­voc­ates ar­gued that the court’s ma­jor­ity opin­ion, writ­ten by Chief Justice John Roberts, re­af­firmed the leg­al­ity of con­tri­bu­tion lim­its. But they’re also real­ist­ic: This isn’t a court that’s been kind to their way of think­ing about cam­paign fin­ance reg­u­la­tions. None would be ser­i­ously sur­prised if in­di­vidu­al con­tri­bu­tion lim­its came un­der scru­tiny next.

— Here’s a pos­sible out­come to keep an eye on, sug­ges­ted by GOP cam­paign fin­ance at­tor­ney Wil­li­am Mc­Gin­ley: The Su­preme Court even­tu­ally rules that con­tri­bu­tion lim­its are con­sti­tu­tion­al but stip­u­lates that the cur­rent caps are far too low. Ex­pect dis­cus­sion in the com­ing weeks about le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion to raise those lim­its (of course, as usu­al, don’t hold your breath wait­ing for le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion).

The coun­try’s post-Wa­ter­gate cam­paign fin­ance sys­tem has been turned on its head in re­cent years. And the changes might not be done yet.
— Alex Roarty

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