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Do Now

Is money a corrupting influence on politics, or merely an expression of free speech? Should there be limits on how much individuals and organizations can give to political candidates? Who will benefit the most or be hurt from new rules that do not limit how much money a person can give to candidates?


In early April, the Supreme Court struck down limits on the total amount individual donors can give to political parties, candidates and political action committees in the case McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission.

The justices said in a 5-4 vote that Americans have a right to give the legal maximum to candidates for Congress and president, as well as to parties and PACs, without worrying that they will violate the law when they bump up against a limit on all contributions, set at $123,200 for 2013 and 2014. That includes a separate $48,600 cap on contributions to candidates.

But their decision does not undermine limits on individual contributions to candidates for president or Congress, now set at $2,600 to a single candidate in an election cycle, or $5,200 in an election year.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who announced the decision, said the aggregate limits do not act to prevent corruption, the rationale the court has upheld as justifying contribution limits. Advocates for the decision say it is merely expanding the right to free speech granted to citizens in the First Amendment.

“Contributing money to a candidate is an exercise of an individual’s right to participate in the electoral process through both political expression and political association,” wrote the justices in the majority decision. “A restriction on how many candidates and committees an individual may support is hardly a ‘modest Restraint’ on those rights. 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.”

The court did not heed warnings from Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. and advocates of campaign finance limits that donors would be able to funnel large amounts of money to a favored candidate in the absence of the overall limit. Critics say the rule change will only give greater power of influence to those wealthy enough to donate beyond the previous maximum amount.

In response to the original 2013 Supreme Court hearing, The New York Times editorial board wrote, “The very wealthiest Americans already have disproportionate influence: in the 2012 election, 1,219 donors reached or nearly reached the overall limit, and together they were responsible for giving $155 million to federal races.

“One study, by Demos and the United States Public Interest Research Group, projected that without the overall limit in place, those donors would have contributed nearly triple that amount — or nearly 50 percent more than President Obama and Mitt Romney received from all small donors combined.”

Nearly 650 donors contributed the maximum amount to candidates, PACs and parties in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.


PBS NewsHour video Debating how the court’s campaign finance decision affects the influence of money on American politics

Does the Supreme Court’s decision to lift the overall limit on political contributions hurt democracy and encourage corruption, or does it affirm free speech rights? Hari Sreenivasan gets reactions from Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice and Erin Murphy, the attorney who argued and won the case before the high court.

To respond to the Do Now, you can comment below or tweet your response. Be sure to begin your tweet with @KQEDedspace and end it with #DoNowCampaign

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More Resources

The Lowdown Explaining the Latest Supreme Court Ruling on Campaign Spending Limits
The Supreme Court on Wednesday removed a 40-year-old cap on the total amount of cash individuals can contribute to political candidates and party committees. The latest in a string of rulings chipping away at longstanding campaign finance limits, the court’s 5-to-4 decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission is expected to let new flood of money pour into America’s already cash-saturated political process.

PBS NewsHour video PBS NewsHour Supreme Court cites changed political landscape in decision lifting campaign finance limit
The Supreme Court struck down overall limits on political contributions, meaning individuals are now allowed to give the maximum contribution to as many candidates or political committees as they wish. Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal joins Judy Woodruff to offer some background on the case.

  • Alec Viera

    I’m with Verrilli on this one. I get the impression this was a very dangerous call by the Supreme Court. I don’t mean to generalize motives of wealthy donors, but un-restricting the limit on how much they can fund opens up room for some seriously disgusting campaigns.


  • taee boogie

    i agree


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