To date, however, the courts have left federal limits on contributions directly to candidates or political parties largely unmolested. Under federal law, individual donations to candidates are limited to $2,500 per candidate, per election, and total contributions to candidates, political party committees and similar organizations are limited to $117,000 every two years. Thus, GOP billionaire Sheldon Adelson can currently give tens of millions of dollars to groups trying to elect Republicans that are separate from the Republican Party, but there remains a cap on how much he can give the GOP directly.
A lawsuit brought by the Republican National Committee now wants to eliminate most of these modest restrictions on election buying, and eliminate the $117,000 cap on donations by people like Adelson. Moreover, because of a federal law that requires the Supreme Court to hear certain campaign finance cases, the Supreme Court is now almost certain to take the case — potentially handing the Republican Party their biggest Supreme Court victory since Citizens United.
As the lower court decision rejecting the GOP’s attempt to suspend the donation limits explains, the likely impact of a Republican victory would be enabling billionaires to launder as much money as they want through political party committees to the candidates of their choice:
Eliminating the aggregate limits means an individual might, for example, give half-a-million dollars in a single check to a joint fundraising committee comprising a party’s presidential candidate, the party’s national party committee, and most of the party’s state party committees. After the fundraiser, the committees are required to divvy the contributions to ensure that no committee receives more than its permitted share, but because party committees may transfer unlimited amounts of money to other party committees of the same party, the half-a-million-dollar contribution might nevertheless find its way to a single committee’s coffers. That committee, in turn, might use the money for coordinated expenditures, which have no “significant functional difference” from the party’s direct candidate contributions. The candidate who knows the coordinated expenditure funding derives from that single large check at the joint fundraising event will know precisely where to lay the wreath of gratitude.
Notably, this opinion was authored by Judge Janice Rogers Brown, who is arguably the most conservative judge in the country. Brown once compared liberalism to “slavery” and Social Security to a “socialist revolution.” She authored an opinion earlier this year suggesting that any effort to regulate labor, business or Wall Street is constitutionally suspect. Yet even Brown acknowledges in her opinion the corrupting impact of unlimited money pouring directly to a political party.
Nevertheless, Judge Brown is obligated to follow previous Supreme Court precedents protecting campaign finance laws. The justices are not. Her opinion upholding the donation limits is now headed to the same five Republican justices who couldn’t figure out how corporations buying elections might lead to corruption when they decided Citizens United.