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Symposium: The distinction between contribution limits and expenditure limits

For almost forty years, since Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, campaign finance law has been based on the distinction between contribution limits and expenditure limits. In Buckley, the Court held that contribution limits – restrictions on the amount that a person gives to a candidate or a committee – are generally constitutional.  But expenditure limits – restrictions on what a person spends overall – are unconstitutional. Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in 2010 applied this distinction and held that limits on independent expenditures by corporations violate the First Amendment.

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission provides the Supreme Court with an occasion to reconsider this distinction. The issue in McCutcheon is whether aggregate limits on contributions are constitutional. Specifically, the plaintiffs are challenging the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act’s $74,600 two-year ceiling on contributions to non-candidate committees and the $48,600 two-year ceiling on donations to candidate organizations.

Options: The Court could say . . .

The Court certainly could rule on this, even declaring it unconstitutional, without calling into question the constitutionality of all contribution limits.  In fact, in Randall v. Sorrell (2006), the Court found Vermont’s limits on contributions to be so restrictive as to violate the First Amendment without reconsidering the basic distinction between limits on contributions and limits on expenditures. Vermont law restricted contributions so that the amount that any single individual could contribute to the campaign of a candidate for state office during a “two-year general election cycle” was $400 for governor, lieutenant governor, and other statewide offices; $300 for state senator; and $200 for state representative. The Court noted that the contribution limits in the Vermont law were lower than those upheld in Buckley or in any other Supreme Court decision, that they were the lowest in the country, and that they were not indexed to keep pace with inflation.

The aggregate contribution limits being challenged in McCutcheon are much higher and the Court therefore could distinguish Randall, follow Buckley, and uphold them.  Or the Court could strike them down, invalidating aggregate limits as a violation of the First Amendment, but without calling into question all contribution limits. Buckley was based, in part, on the view that large contributions to candidates risk corruption and the appearance of corruption. The Court explained that “[t]o the extent that large contributions are given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders, the integrity of our system of representative democracy is undermined. . . . Of almost equal concern as the danger of actual quid pro quo arrangements is the impact of the appearance of corruption stemming from public awareness of the opportunities for abuse inherent in a regime of large individual financial contributions.’’

The Court in McCutcheon could say that aggregate limits on the amount that can be contributed do not help to prevent such corruption or appearance of corruption. The Court could say that aggregate limits on contributions are really much more akin to expenditure limits and therefore unconstitutional.  The Court could say that the real purpose of aggregate limits is to equalize political influence, a justification for campaign finance laws that the Court expressly rejected in Citizens United. Or the Court could distinguish aggregate limits to candidate committees from those to non-candidate committees, such as political parties.

Five votes to reconsider Buckley?

Underlying McCutcheon, though, is the question of whether the five conservative Justices want to reconsider Buckley’s holding that contribution limits are generally constitutional.  In assessing this, it is important to note that three of these Justices – Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas – have already called for the distinction between contribution and expenditure limits to be overruled.  In his separate opinion in Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission, Justice Thomas declared: “I would reject the framework established by Buckley v. Valeo. . . . Instead, I begin with the premise that there is no constitutionally significant difference between campaign contributions and expenditures: both forms of speech are central to the First Amendment.’’

In Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC (2000), the Supreme Court reaffirmed Buckley’s distinction between contributions and expenditures, but four Justices sharply disagreed. Three Justices – Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas – expressly declared their desire to overrule Buckley’s approval of contribution limits. Justice Kennedy wrote a strong dissent in which he lamented that ‘‘[t]he Court’s decision has lasting consequences for political speech in the course of elections, the speech upon which democracy depends.’’ He accused the Court of being “almost indifferent’’ to freedom of speech and said that he would overrule Buckley. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, wrote a lengthier dissent, which began by declaring: “In the process of ratifying Missouri’s sweeping repression of political speech, the Court today adopts the analytical fallacies of our flawed decision in Buckley v. Valeo….Under the guise of applying Buckley, the Court proceeds to weaken the already enfeebled constitutional protection that Buckley afforded campaign contributions. As I indicated [previously], our decision in Buckley was in error, and I would overrule it.”

Therefore, it is likely that Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas are votes to strike down the aggregate contribution limits in McCutcheon and more generally to find contribution limits to violate the First Amendment. The crucial question in McCutcheon will be whether Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito will join them and how far they are willing to go in reconsidering the distinction between contributions and expenditures.

The Chief Justice and Justice Alito were with Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas in Citizens United in its strong endorsement of the view that spending of money in election campaigns is political speech protected by the First Amendment and in invalidating limits on independent corporate political expenditures.  Roberts and Alito also were with Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas in Davis v. Federal Election Commission (2008), in declaring unconstitutional the “millionaire’s provision” of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act unconstitutional. This provision increased contribution limits for opponents of a candidate who spent more than $350,000 of his or her personal funds.   Most recently, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett (2011), these five Justices were in the majority to declare unconstitutional a public funding system that increased the contribution and spending limits for those not taking public money based on the amount spent by opponents.

By contrast, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor strongly dissented in Citizens United, and Justice Elena Kagan, who as Solicitor General argued for the constitutionality of the law in Citizens United, wrote the dissent in Arizona Free Enterprise Club.  They are obviously much more likely to uphold the challenged provisions in McCutcheon and to adhere to Buckley’s distinction between contributions and expenditures.

What seems absent on the current Court is any Justice who takes the position espoused by Justice John Paul Stevens, that there is no meaningful distinction between contribution and expenditure limits and that expenditure limits should be constitutional. This long has been my view.  Elected officials can be influenced by who spends money on their behalf, just as they can be influenced by who directly contributes money to them. The perception of corruption might be generated by large expenditures for a candidate, just as it can be caused by large contributions.   Moreover, I agree with Justice Stevens’s statement in his concurrence in Nixon v. Shrink that “[m]oney is property; it is not speech. . . .  These property rights are not entitled to the same protection as the right to say what one pleases.’’


Predicting Supreme Court decisions is always tempting and always dangerous.  But for what it’s worth, my prediction is that the Court will vote five-four to strike down the aggregate contribution limits being challenged in McCutcheon and that it will do so without overruling the distinction between contributions and expenditures that is at the core of Buckley.  When faced to confront the question in some future case, I fear that the Chief Justice and Justice Alito will join Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas in rejecting this distinction and they well might signal this in McCutcheon.

Erwin Chemerinsky is the Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

Recommended Citation: Erwin Chemerinsky, Symposium: The distinction between contribution limits and expenditure limits, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 12, 2013, 2:42 PM),