In what may be Act 2 in the decline and fall of campaign funding laws, the Supreme Court appears poised to lift the lid on the total amount the wealthy can give directly to all candidates and political parties. Increasingly, the money that funds election races for Congress and the presidency comes from a small sliver of the very rich, what the Sunlight Foundation called the “elite class that serves as gatekeepers of public office in the United States.” The nonpartisan group has tracked how a growing share of election money comes from the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans. In the first major case of its new term, the court could give those donors even more clout with lawmakers and their parties. The issue is whether federal limits, not on contributions to individual races but on how much a donor can give to all candidates for Congress or party committees in a particular election cycle, violate the right of free speech.
Three years ago, the current court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in the Citizens United case that “independent” spending on election races was protected free speech and struck down long-standing bans on such spending by corporations and unions.
But until now, the court’s conservatives have not joined together to strike down the Watergate-era limits on how much donors can give directly to candidates or party committees.
That has left the law in an odd posture. Wealthy people who want to influence campaign races can give millions of dollars to “super PACs” and other groups that pay for “independent” election ads, but they are barred by law from giving more than $48,600 total to all members of Congress or more than $74,600 to various party committees.