The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that it is unconstitutional to limit the total amount of money someone can give to political candidates.
The limit remains on the amount you can give to each individual candidate ($2,600 per election), but now, you can give to an unlimited number of candidates.
We asked Heritage legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky to break down this decision and what it means.
The Foundry: So now you can give the maximum donation to as many candidates as you like. Does this apply only to candidates for federal office?
Hans von Spakovsky: The Supreme Court’s ruling applied only to federal candidates, but the constitutional principle on which the Court based its ruling will allow individuals to challenge any state laws that have similar restrictions for state elections.
What was the basis for the Supreme Court’s ruling?
Giving money to a candidate is an exercise of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political expression and political association—you are exercising your First Amendment right to express your support for particular candidates and the ideology they represent, as well as to associate with them politically.
While the Court still believes it is acceptable for Congress to restrict how much money an individual can contribute to a specific candidate in order to avoid corruption or the appearance of corruption, it held that it is unconstitutional to restrict how much you can give in total to different candidates. As the Court said, “the government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”
So speech and money are the same thing in the political arena? Is that what our Founders envisioned?
Yes, when you restrict a candidate’s ability to raise or spend money, you are restricting his or her ability to speak. It takes money to advertise on television and radio; to send out political brochures that illustrate your ideas and public policy views; to speak, write, or engage in activity that tells people what you believe and why they should vote for you. So speech and money are inextricably bound together in the First Amendment context. Many of the Founders who ran for office in the early days of the Republic understood very well that it takes money to run a campaign and get your voice heard by the public.
CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin said, “The decision gives rich people more power to influence campaigns.” Do “rich people” in fact have more power now?
The First Amendment protects individuals no matter how rich or poor they are. In fact, the vast majority of contributions raised by federal candidates and political parties are small donations, well below the individual limit. Some individuals may be financially able to contribute more overall, but the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee a level playing field—just the equal opportunity to speak, associate, and engage in political activity.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the decision "only serves to widen the floodgates of special interest spending.” Isn’t that what people said after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision?
That is a foolish claim by Rep. Pelosi. How are political donations made by individual Americans to candidates they like “special interest spending”? She apparently doesn’t like having liberty-loving conservatives like Sean McCutcheon, a business owner in Alabama who was the plaintiff in this week’s case, engaging in political activity that threatens her power.
The 2010 Citizens United decision threw out the restrictions on independent political speech by advocacy organizations and corporations, including nonprofits like the National Rifle Association. One of the reasons that Rep. Pelosi didn’t like that decision is that America had the most competitive congressional elections since the 1930s in November 2010, after that decision came out. However, even after the Citizens United decision, political expenditures from these types of groups still represent just a fraction of overall campaign dollars.
The biggest source of money for political campaigns continues to be smaller donations—Americans who are giving less than $100 to the candidates they support. So for all the talk about the nefarious “money in politics,” supporting candidates is actually something many Americans do.