Guest Column: Campaign donations on trial

Los Angeles Times

The Supreme Court long ago established that Americans have a 1st Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts on behalf of a political candidate as long as the money is spent independently — and not given directly to or coordinated with the candidate’s campaign. But even as the court has upheld limitless independent spending, it has also repeatedly acknowledged Congress’ authority to set limits on direct contributions to political campaigns.

Now, in an ominous sign that that distinction may soon fall by the wayside, the court has agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to the long-standing federal limits on the total amount an individual may donate to candidates and political committees during an election cycle. If the challenge is successful, it would undermine a crucial premise of campaign-reform law dating back to the 1970s.

One reason the court long has afforded less 1st Amendment protection to direct contributions than to independent spending is that framing and amplifying one’s own message is a more expressive and personal activity than donating money to a political campaign to be used in framing its message. In the latter transaction, the “speech” involved consists simply of an endorsement, which can be accomplished whether the donation is $1 or $1,000.

The court has concluded that this minimal free-speech interest is outweighed by Congress’ interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. The court has assumed that direct contributions to a campaign raise more of a danger of a quid pro quo than an independent expenditure does.

That assumption has been widely ridiculed, both by liberals who want the court to place limits on expenditures and by conservatives who call for the removal of restrictions on contributions. Does a newly elected officeholder really feel more beholden to a donor who gave his campaign $2,500 than to a supporter who spent $1 million in an independent effort to secure his election? Perhaps not, but in preserving contribution limits, the court has at least closed off one avenue of improper influence.

In the case the court will review, an Alabama Republican donor is challenging not the limits on how much he can give to a particular candidate but rather the $123,200 ceiling on how much he can donate to all party committees and federal candidates in an election cycle. Campaign reformers fear that a ruling in his favor striking down “aggregate” limits would be the first step in dismantling contribution limits of all kinds.

There is no reason for the court to go down that road. In upholding the limits on aggregate contributions, a federal court in the District of Columbia explained that, despite limits on how much a donor may give to a single party committee, it would be possible, once aggregate limits were abolished, for a half-million-dollar donation to end up significantly benefiting a particular candidate. That candidate, Judge Janice Rogers Brown noted, would “know precisely where to lay the wreath of gratitude.” The court shouldn’t strike down a modest attempt to make such expressions of gratitude less common.

The above editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, Feb. 22.