Supreme Court lifts controls on parties' campaign spending Divided justices remove financial limits placed on congressional campaigns

June 27, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Jules Witcover contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Freeing political parties to promote their congressional candidates and attack their opponents, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that it is unconstitutional to curb a party's spending to get out the vote for its candidates.

The court was widely splintered in the ruling. The result could be determined only by counting the votes for three separate opinions, none speaking for a majority of five.

In the end, by a vote of 7-2, the court ruled that Congress had no constitutional power to limit "independent" expenditures by political parties during congressional campaigns. The ruling did not involve presidential campaign spending.

Under a 1971 law, political parties and campaign committees have been barred from spending beyond ceilings set for House and Senate elections -- about $30,000 for House races and up to $1.3 million for Senate campaigns.

Jan Baran, a Republican who is a campaign finance expert and who was involved in the court's case, said that the ruling is an indication that, in the future, parties may gain even more constitutional freedom to spend on campaigns.

"Very likely, spending limits on political parties are dying," Baran said.

Since anyone outside a party or a candidate's campaign can now independently spend what they wish to help elect a candidate to Congress, Baran said, there is no reason not to extend the same freedom to presidential races.

While a wealthy presidential candidate such as Ross Perot is free to spend unlimited amounts of his own money to promote his own candidacy, there is no reason not to let him do so to promote another candidate, Baran argued.

To take advantage of the ruling, parties must plan and spend their congressional campaign funds apart from a candidate's own campaign.

Treating that kind of party outlay as independent, three justices of the court said the First Amendment free-speech guarantee bars Congress from setting ceilings on such "uncoordinated" spending. Those three noted that past Supreme Court rulings have provided broad constitutional protection for "independent" political spending in federal elections.

Speaking for those three, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said: "The independent expression of a political party's views is core First Amendment activity."

Those three justices said that they were confining their ruling to cases such as the one in Colorado, where there was no direct proof that party spending had been coordinated with a candidate.

Those justices said the government in trying to monitor campaign spending may not assume that a party's own spending, even to promote its own candidate or assail the opposing candidate, has been arranged jointly with the candidate's own campaign.

Four other justices wanted to go further to ease restrictions on party spending, saying it would be unconstitutional to cap such spending even if fully coordinated with a candidate's campaign.

Because that view drew the support of only four justices, with the five others either rejecting it or not discussing it, the actual ruling by the court did not go so far.

Two justices dissented, saying they would have upheld spending curbs on parties in congressional campaigns, whether the money was spent independently of the candidate or not. Their view, the dissenters said, was that "all money spent by a political party" to gets its congressional candidates elected should be treated as a contribution to that campaign and thus subject to federal limits.

Yesterday's ruling grows out of a series of "attack ads" that the Colorado Republican Party's Federal Campaign Committee financed during the 1986 U.S. senatorial campaign. At that time, it appeared that Rep. Tim Wirth would be the Democratic candidate for the Senate.

The Republican campaign committee decided to attack Wirth even before he won the nomination. It ran three radio ads and published two pamphlets questioning Wirth's spending record and support for the military.

The state Democratic Party complained to the Federal Election Commission that the ads exceeded the spending limits imposed on parties by federal law. The FEC found a violation and fined the Republican committee.

The committee took the issue to the Supreme Court, contending that the limit on its independent spending violating its First Amendment rights.

The justices voting in favor of the Republican committee, for varying reasons, were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Breyer, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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