The next domino in the effort to erase campaign finance restrictions has just been pushed. A case attacking the McCain-Feingold reform law’s ban on unlimited contributions to political parties has been set on a path that almost certainly ends at the Supreme Court. With the help of Citizens United lawyer Jim Bopp, the Republican Party of Louisiana and the Jefferson Parish and Orleans Parish Republican Party sued to allow state and local parties to raise enormous sums under looser state laws and then spend them on federal elections. That practice is currently banned by restrictions on the use of “soft money” — unlimited contributions to political parties that pay for so-called party-building activities, as opposed to supporting specific candidates. The ban came after Senate investigations found that both parties had abused their soft money accounts to evade campaign contribution limits. Money meant for party-building activities was spent on ads promoting candidates. The Senate’s investigations also found that soft money donors were provided increased access and influence in policy making.
To close that loophole, the 2002 McCain-Feingold law banned political parties from receiving and spending money in excess of the base contribution limits for spending on candidates. The law formally known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act also banned the solicitation of soft money contributions by candidates. The Supreme Court upheld those restrictions in its 2003 decision in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission.
Then last year, in another campaign finance case, the court said something about corruption that undermined the whole justification for banning soft money.
Since 1976, the Supreme Court has held that the only permissible justification for limiting the raising or spending of campaign money is to reduce either actual corruption or the appearance of corruption. That makes the court’s definition of “corruption” incredibly important in determining what limits pass muster.