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Will: On political speech, a court opportunity

  • (DANA SUMMERS / Tribune Content Agency)

The U.S. Supreme Court must feel as though it is plowing an ocean as it repeatedly reminds Congress that the anodyne label “campaign finance reform” can encompass a multitude of sins. Come Tuesday, the court will have another occasion to consider that not all regulations of the indispensable means of disseminating political speech — money — are constitutional just because they are presented as means of preventing corruption or its “appearance.”

By siding with Shaun McCutcheon, a conservative Alabama entrepreneur, the court can continue rescuing the freedoms of political speech and association from abridgements written by, and for, the political class. At issue are the aggregate limits on individuals' political contributions.

McCutcheon is not attacking the “base limits” that restrict individuals to giving $2,600 per election to any candidate's campaign. Congress has divined, without apparent reliance on any empirical evidence, that this is the sum above which corruption or its appearance occurs. The sum is, for incumbent lawmakers, conveniently low: It especially burdens candidates challenging incumbents, who have fundraising and other advantages.

McCutcheon is contesting the $48,600 limit on the aggregate amount individuals can contribute to candidates over a two-year span (and aggregate limits on contributions to party committees and PACs). The illogic of aggregate limits is glaring: He could give $2,600 — which Congress considers innocuous — to 18 candidates without an appearance of corruption, but $2,600 to the 19th would somehow trigger the appearance. If in 2006 he had wanted to contribute to one candidate in all 468 federal races (435 House, 33 Senate) he would have been limited to $85.47 per candidate.

Congress, not content with having decided — no one knows how — how much is too much to give to a candidate, has decided how many candidates are too many candidates to support. Incumbents have an incentive to limit challengers' resources by insisting — without enunciating a standard or principle — that there is “too much” money in politics. Incumbent protection is also served by a similar standardless decree that 19 is “too many” candidates to receive $2,600 contributions that Congress approves.

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