NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Justices Take Up Campaign Contributions And Free Speech

October 6, 1999

The Supreme Court is hearing a case involving an individual campaign-contribution limit of $1,075 for statewide races in Missouri. If the court rules that such a limit violates the free speech rights of donors, federal laws limiting the amount of contributions in congressional and presidential races could go the way of the dodo bird.

Moreover, the court's decision could be rendered before next summer -- just in time for the upcoming presidential election.

  • The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 set limits on campaign contributions -- $1,000 from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees during the primaries and the same limits during the general election campaign.
  • The limits on such "hard money" contributions have fueled a growth in "soft money" contributions to the political parties.
  • In 1976, the first presidential election year after the limits took effect, Jimmy Carter raised just $8 million for his primary campaigns -- whereas Republican front-runner George W. Bush has already surpassed $56 million.
  • In the 1975-76 election season, all federal candidates raised a total of $173 million -- a sum dwarfed by the $1.03 billion amassed by federal candidates in 1995-96.

According to reports of arguments heard yesterday in the Missouri case, the justices appeared sharply divided over whether limits violate the free-speech rights of donors. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a likely swing vote in the case, hinted that he favored eliminating limits altogether and asked how contributions could be viewed as "subversive of the political process."

Legal experts predict that if the court throws out the Missouri ceiling, opponents of the federal limit will be expected to go to court immediately to challenge it as well.

Source: Tony Mauro and Jim Drinkard, "Review Could Jeopardize Campaign-Finance Law," USA Today, October 6, 1999.


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