Are Donation Limits Next?


Now that the Supreme Court has overturned restrictions on the political speech of corporations, could restrictions on donations to political campaigns be vulnerable too? So far the Court has not revisited the distinction it drew between spending and contributing in the 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld the donation limits imposed by the Federal Election Campaign Act. But it never made much sense to say that spending your own money on political ads is completely protected by the First Amendment while spending money that other people give you is not. Now that groups stymied by donation limits can support candidates through unlimited independent expenditures, the distinction is even harder to justify, since "corruption or the appearance of corruption" could occur in this context as well.

This year an individual may give a candidate up to $2,400 per election. Even if the Court does not reconsider Buckley, members of Congress who feel threatened by independently funded criticism may decide it's in their interest to eliminate, or at least substantially raise, that ceiling. That way they could hit up just a few wealthy supporters to counter ads sponsored by interest groups. Then again, they would have to worry about election challenges not only from self-funded multimillionaires and billionaires but from candidates with a wealthy sponsor or two. The latter effect would give us a greater diversity of candidates and make elections more interesting. It might even knock down re-election rates, which stood at 94 percent for the House and 83 percent for the Senate in 2008, by a few points.