Supreme Court to consider rolling back campaign donation limits

In the 2010 Citizens United case, the Supreme Court did away with the limits on what unions and corporations can spend on political speech, so long as their money is spent independently of candidates and campaigns. On Tuesday, the court will consider rolling back limits on political contributions directly to candidates and political parties.

The court hears oral arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which reviews aggregate contributions limits on donations to candidates, political parties and political action committees (PACs).

The case does not call into question the maximum amount an individual can donate to a single candidate or political party in a two-year election cycle -- those limits are $2,600 to a candidate, $32,400 to a national political party and $5,000 to a political committee. Instead, it considers the overall limits: An individual may donate a maximum of $48,600 to all candidates and an overall maximum of $74,600 to PACs and parties.

On one level, the McCutcheon case is just about a few thousand of the wealthiest individuals in America, and whether they should be allowed to contribute to as many campaigns and candidates as they want. In this particular case, it's about Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, and whether he should be allowed to donate $2,600 to just 18 candidates in one election year, or 19 or 20, or more.

In an interview with CBS News' Jan Crawford, McCutcheon acknowledged that contribution limits are designed to limit political corruption but argued the logic of aggregate limits is shaky.

"If there is no corruption at 19 [candidates], there is no corruption at 435," he said. "If my 18th candidate was a House race in Alabama, then I could not do a 19th candidate -- say, a Senate race in Louisiana... I have to sit there all next year and do nothing, and just watch. My free speech is suppressed for the whole year if I max out this year."

Fred Wertheimer, founder of the nonprofit Democracy 21, defended the limits, telling Crawford that the ability to financially influence effectively every race in the nation goes too far.

"The bottom line is you cannot allow individuals to give, and office holders to solicit, million-dollar and $2 million contributions without corrupting our political system and corrupting our democracy," he said. "The Supreme Court has never said that contributions represent free speech that cannot be limited."

Beyond its implications for the wealthy few like McCutcheon, the case could mark a significant shift in the way the court treats political gifts. If the court did knock down overall limits, it would be the first chip away at federal contribution limits since the rationale for such limits was established 40 years ago.

"If you fear deregulated politics, you're concerned about that," former Federal Election Commission commissioner Brad Smith, co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics, told reporters last week. "If you're like us and say there's not much to show for the regulation we've had since 1974, then we welcome that development."

Eliminating aggregate limits could set the stage for striking down all contribution limits. "At that point, we would be back to the 19th Century and the Robber Baron era," Wertheimer said, calling the court's eventual decision in McCutcheon "potentially much more dangerous than the Citizens United decision."

Since Citizens United helped clear the way for super PACs -- which can raise unlimited sums to spend on political matters independent of the candidates, campaigns or parties -- there is already an outlet for wealthy individuals who want to invest in politics. Smith argued that if aggregate limits on contributions to candidates were removed, people could donate directly to candidates, rather than through super PACs.

"The more the system is opened up, the better," he said.

David Donnelly, executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund, supports the aggregate limits, arguing to CBSNews.com that the specter of unlimited direct contributions is more concerning than the influence of super PACs.

"We can't depend on our democracy working well because there's a debate between rich people," he said. "If there's just rich people on the right and on the left fueling all these campaigns, it narrows the kind of issues our candidates have to think about... The system already does that enough."

Donnelly said he is concerned the court could take a middle-ground approach, and instead of doing away with aggregate limits, rule that the current limits are too low. If the court took that approach, it would be up to Congress to set new limits.

"I'm worried that the language they use will be less sweeping than Citizens United but practically more damaging," he said. "If they say we can have aggregate limits but these are too low, then I just don't see the practical ability of Congress to do anything about it -- they can't agree on the color of the sky."

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