CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four West Virginians who appear to have exceeded overall limits on political donations may not have to worry about those limits the next time around.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case that could invalidate the aggregate limits on contributions to federal candidates.
Currently, a person cannot give more than a total of $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to parties and political action committees in any two-year election cycle. Those limits apply no matter how many candidates or committees a person gives to.
The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, has been billed as a kind of sequel to the Citizens United, the 2010 case that struck down limits on independent political spending by corporations and unions.
Shaun McCutcheon, the CEO of an Alabama company that makes electrical systems for mines, sued the FEC. McCutcheon said that by limiting the total amount he could spend on campaigns the law was unduly infringing on his First Amendment freedom of speech.
McCutcheon did not challenge the limit on contributions to individual candidates, which is currently $2,600 per election, just the limit on total spending.
"By prohibiting contributions that are within the modest base limits Congress has already imposed," Erin Murphy, McCutcheon's lawyer, told the court on Oct. 8, "these limits simply seek to prevent individuals from engaging in too much First Amendment activity."
Arguing on behalf of the FEC, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, said that the aggregate limits are necessary to combat corruption. Verrilli argued that the individual limits are toothless without the aggregate limits, because one donor could give to many candidates of the same party who could then funnel the money all to one candidate, creating the possibility of quid pro quo corruption.
"Candidates are not hermetically sealed off from each other and parties are not hermetically sealed off from candidates, "Verrilli said. "They're all on the same team."
Without the aggregate limits, Verrilli foresaw a hypothetical situation where a person could donate $3.6 million to one party by giving the maximum amount to every congressional candidate and every party committee, creating the incentive for corruption and effectively drowning out the voices of smaller donors.
"If you think that a party's got to get $1.5 billion together to run a congressional campaign," Verrilli said, "and you've got a maximum of $3.6 million, that is about 450 people you need to round up. Less than 500 people can fund the whole shooting match."
The McCutcheon case could result in major changes to how elections are funded, while tangibly affecting only a handful of West Virginians. It's impossible to know how many people would spend more on campaigns if there were no aggregate limits, but in 2012 only five West Virginians brushed up against the limits, according to an analysis of federal data by the Center for Responsive Politics. That includes the four men who appear to have given in excess of the limits.