Federal election laws limit the amount of money that an individual may give to a national party committee each year. The aim is to prevent the corruption and appearance that has been found to arise from parties’ unchecked solicitations of wealthy donors and their receipt of large contributions. These contribution limits have long been upheld because they do not prevent donors from spending money on political activity directly, rather only marginally restricts their association with the party and their expression “through” the proxy of a political party. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) applies these limits to bequests from individual estates, but requires parties to put bequests that exceed the limits in an escrow account, and to make annual withdrawals in amounts that comply with the yearly limits.
In the last hours before the December 2014 deadline, Congress passed an enormous federal spending bill, the “Cromnibus,” to avoid a government shutdown. Tucked into the spending package was an amendment to the federal contribution limits, which allows individuals to make an additional contribution to a political party of up to three times the pre-existing limits, so long as those contributions are made to “segregated accounts.” These segregated accounts can then be used by the parties to pay for expenses related to presidential nominating conventions, legal activity, and party headquarters buildings, but not for other purposes.
The LNC brings two separate but interrelated challenges to limits on contributions to political parties. First, the LNC argues that they should be able to accept the full amount of a particular bequest immediately because no quid pro quoarrangement between the party and a decedent can arise, and the nature of the bequest does not give rise the appearance of such an arrangement. Second, the LNC argues that by increasing the contribution limits only for certain designated expenses, Congress has created an unconstitutional “content based” restriction on how parties may accept and spend contributions.
WHAT IS AT STAKE
This case is yet another attempt to undermine or eliminate contribution limits to political parties. It advances the dangerous proposition that contribution limits may only apply to a specific contribution if the government can show that it has caused corruption or is likely to do so in the future. The LNC’s characterizes its request to exempt a bequest from the annual limits as a one-time carve-out for a gift where the donor has no any interest in political favors. In reality, however, the logic underlying this argument would require the FEC and the courts to “prove” the corruptive effects of every individual political contribution. Not only would this be impossible to administer, it would undermine the prophylactic nature of the entire system of federal contribution limits.
The case also seeks to sweep away decades of precedent which has upheld contribution limits precisely because they limit only the amount an individual can donate to a particular political party or candidate, and not the total amount of political activity in which either the donor or the recipient may engage. Finally, it attempts to create a one-way ratchet on contribution limits, and ignores the long-standing deference courts have given to Congress to determine what monetary limit serves the dual aims of preventing corruption and ensuring parties have the resources necessary to engage in political advocacy.
The Campaign Legal Center disagrees with many of the assumptions which underlie both the FEC’s decision to allow excess contributions made in the form of a bequest, and Congress’s decision to increase the contribution limits for segregated accounts. Those disagreements are rooted in policy disputes, however, not constitutional infirmities. Our friend-of-the-court brief, filed with Democracy 21, supports the constitutionality of the overall federal contribution limit system, and points out the dangerous implications for campaign finance jurisprudence should the Court rule in favor of the LNC.