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Court loosens rules for big political campaign donors

Published April 3, 2014 7:38 am
As the 2014 campaign picks up speed, justices say restrictions violate free-speech rights.
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A new Supreme Court ruling will allow the wealthy to pump more money into politics, a move that is likely to bolster state and national parties. Republicans in Utah hailed the decision as a free-speech victory, while Democrats expressed concern that this will only heighten the pressure to raise ever-increasing piles of campaign cash.

In the 5-4 decision Wednesday, the court's conservative-leaning justices struck down aggregate-contribution limits, though individual limits remain on the books. What that means is that while a donor can still give no more than $2,600 per candidate per election, he or she can now give that much money to any number of candidates. The same goes for donations to national and state parties and the political-action committees controlled by corporations, unions and candidates.

Before the ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the most a wealthy donor could give in a two-year period was $123,200, which would be split among candidates, political parties and PACs. The new ceiling is north of $3.5 million.

"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," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the decision was "a victory for all Americans and for the free-speech protections that individuals of every political stripe hold dear."

That's not how the four liberal-leaning justices saw it.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a harsh dissent, saying Roberts and those who sided with him used faulty legal logic and their decision "eviscerates our nation's campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve."

Breyer wrote that the decision too narrowly defined potential political corruption as only bribery and didn't "consider attempts to garner influence over access to elected officials or political parties."

Campaign-finance attorney Matthew Sanderson said the ruling could be a step toward eliminating individual-donation limits, particularly when this decision is read in conjunction with the Citizens United ruling that allowed unlimited contributions to super-PACs, which are not supposed to coordinate directly with candidates.

"It does spell, very subtly, doom for the other contribution limits that are still on the books," said Sanderson, an attorney at Washington, D.C.-based Caplin & Drysdale, who is a Utah native.

That's fine with James Evans, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, who believes the ruling will make it easier for the GOP to collect contributions for federal races.

"I believe that money does equal speech," he said Wednesday. "As long as it is transparent, and the public knows whom is giving what, I don't think there should be any limitations. I'm supportive of that."

Before the ruling, Utah's political parties could collect unlimited contributions from corporations or people for state purposes, but only $10,000 from individuals to support candidates in U.S. Senate and House contests. The Democratic and Republican parties in Utah often had to fund get-out-the-vote drives or voter databases through harder-to-get federal funds because they may support the party's congressional candidates.

Now people can contribute $10,000 annually to as many state parties as they want, and Sanderson expects the parties will create joint fundraising committees to make it easier for high-dollar donors to do just that. Such a move would allow the parties to wrestle back some of the power that super-PACs have gained in recent years.

About 400 joint fundraising committees exist now, allowing donors to write a single check that would be split among a candidate, a political party and other committees. President Barack Obama used such joint committees to raise more than $492 million in his re-election bid, largely by appearing at fundraisers in which donors often gave tens of thousands of dollars. He could now legally command much higher contributions from attendees.

On a smaller level, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has increased his use of his Beehive Victory Fund in recent years. The fund has allowed him to take larger checks from some of his loyal supporters, such as his former bosses at Nu Skin. He then divvies the money among his campaign account, his PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee. In the past two cycles, he has raised more than $180,000 this way.

Matt Lyon, executive director at the Utah Democratic Party, said the ruling will make it easier for candidates and parties to raise money, but he wouldn't say that makes the court's decision a good thing.

"It impacts the game, but I think there is still too much money in politics," he said. "Our candidates still feel the constant pull to seek the all-mighty campaign dollar."

mcanham@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mattcanham

 

 


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