Rich candidates catch a break

High court strikes down campaign finance measure

June 27, 2008|By McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON - Wealthy political candidates caught a break yesterday as the Supreme Court struck down a campaign finance rule that benefits their opponents.

By 5-4, the court ruled that Congress went too far when it loosened fundraising restraints for politicians facing millionaires who invest in their own campaigns. The court's majority declared that the campaign finance double standard violated First Amendment free-speech guarantees.

"The argument that a candidate's speech may be restricted in order to level electoral opportunity has ominous implications because it would permit Congress to arrogate the voters' authority to evaluate the strength of candidates competing for office," Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority.

The decision, arising out of a New York state congressional race, marks the second time in as many years that the court has undercut a 2002 campaign finance law co-authored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The now-diminished law is the signature Capitol Hill accomplishment for McCain, the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee.

Dubbed the "millionaire's amendment," the provision struck down yesterday was billed as a way to level the campaign funding playing field. It didn't restrict how much money the wealthy candidate could spend.

"The millionaire's amendment does not impose any burden whatsoever on the self-funding candidate's freedom to speak," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent, adding that "it does no more than diminish the unequal strength of the self-funded candidate."

The opinion, one of the last to be issued by the court for the now-concluded 2007-2008 term, broke down along predictable fault lines. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined Alito in striking down the provision. Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined Stevens in the main dissent.

Even with the November election months away, the broader consequences of the ruling in Davis v. Federal Election Commission may unfold slowly.

Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who co-authored the overall campaign finance bill with McCain, stressed that the case left intact key elements of the 2002 law, including a ban on so-called "soft money," unlimited donations - even from corporate and union treasuries - that could be used for voter mobilization and party-building efforts.

Still, dozens of candidates have been eligible for the millionaire's amendment provisions since the law was enacted. They include, most notably, then-Senate candidate Barack Obama in 2004. Obama was able to collect larger contributions because his Democratic primary opponent, Blair Hull, spent $28.6 million of his own money.

Bradley A. Smith, a campaign finance law skeptic formerly of the Federal Election Commission and now with the Center for Competitive Politics, predicted that the ruling "calls into question" other campaign laws that provide public financing to candidates who voluntarily restrict spending.

"It is potentially a blow to public financing systems, which were already undermined earlier this week by Barack Obama's decision not to take presidential public funding" this fall, Columbia Law School professor Richard Briffault said.

The New York businessman who successfully challenged the law, Jack Davis, had been a failed House candidate.

In the House, the provision kicked in once a candidate - the presumed millionaire - spent at least $350,000 of his or her own money. The opponent then could collect significantly larger campaign contributions. The usual $2,300 limit on individual contributions would triple, and the $40,900 limit on political party expenditures would be lifted altogether.

The provision also imposed hefty reporting requirements that skeptics considered onerous.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.