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Campaign Contribution Limits Challenged

U.S. Supreme Court case could embolden big donors in Wisconsin

Oct. 16, 2013
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Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a high-rolling Alabama donor’s challenge to the federal limits on campaign donations to federal candidates.

If the five-member Citizens United majority holds, the Supreme Court could strike down those federal limits—and jeopardize Wisconsin’s limits to state candidates as well.

Federal law allows individuals to contribute up to $2,600 every two years to a candidate for federal office; donors cannot give more than $123,000 every two years to federal candidates, political action committees (PACs) and national parties.

In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, Republican donor Shaun McCutcheon is arguing that the $123,000 aggregate limit unconstitutionally restricts his First Amendment right to free speech. His case follows in the wake of 2010’s Citizens United, which struck down limits on donations from corporations to independent campaign entities—not candidates themselves—and launched super PACs, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, spent more than $609 million in the 2012 election cycle.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said the alleged problem created by the aggregate limits is only encountered by the super-wealthy who have more than $123,000 to spend on their favored candidates.

“The voice of the wealthy will be amplified,” McCabe said.

If McCutcheon wins, a Wisconsin case is waiting in federal court that could end Wisconsin’s aggregate limits. In a case brought before U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, Racine resident Fred Young Jr., who has close ties to the Koch brothers and Republican Gov. Scott Walker, is questioning the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s aggregate limits. Under Wisconsin law, an individual can give up to $10,000 per year to a statewide candidate but cannot give more than $10,000 per year to state-office candidates, political parties and PACs.

“Under the First Amendment, it doesn’t say you’re only entitled to this much speech or this much association,” said Young’s attorney, Rick Esenberg of the Bradley Foundation-funded Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. “So he would like to make a maximum contribution to more than one candidate for statewide office but Wisconsin doesn’t permit that to happen.”

Esenberg said the aggregate limits simply force high donors to contribute to independent groups like super PACs. Those outside groups have no limits and almost no transparency.

Wisconsin is one of only nine states with aggregate limits. An investigation by the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that in the 2010 election cycle, 129 contributors hit that maximum amount in Wisconsin, while 175,000 donors contributed less than that limit. Those high-spending donors gave $1.3 million that cycle; the smaller donors gave $28 million.

A bill pending in the state Legislature would raise the aggregate limit to $20,000.

If the Legislature doubles the limits, even more power will be concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest donors, McCabe said.

“Most people never will give $10,000 in campaign contributions,” McCabe said. “So the handful who can reach that limit will have their capacity to influence public officials doubled.”


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