The U.S. Supreme Court heard a curious case Tuesday that highlights the absurdity of the 2002 McCain-Feingold law’s limits on contributions to political candidates.
Davis v. Federal Election Commission was about a curious amendment to that law called the “millionaire’s amendment.”
McCain-Feingold set limits on campaign contributions (currently $2,300 for primaries and $2,300 for general elections). However, 1976’s Buckley v. Valeo decision ruled that wealthy candidates must be allowed to contribute as much of their personal funds as they want to their own campaigns, since such self-financing doesn’t present the appearance of corruption (the stated rationale for contribution limits) because the money wasn’t coming from special interests.
Furthermore, preventing a candidate from spending his or her own money was deemed an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech.
Since it couldn’t outlaw self-financing campaigns, Congress allowed the opponents of self-financing candidates who spent more than $350,000 of their own money to accept contributions up to three times the limit for other candidates and to coordinate expenditures with party committees.
In addition, it required self-financing candidates to announce within 15 days of filing whether they planned to spend more than $350,000 and imposed additional spending disclosure requirements that were not required of other candidates.
Jack Davis is a multimillionaire who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in upstate New York in 2004 and 2006, spending $4 million of his own money. He has challenged the “millionaire’s amendment,” charging that it deters free speech by imposing a disincentive to self-financing and that it violates the concept of equal protection of the laws.
The court should decide in Davis’ favor if only because the provisions are clearly designed to “level the playing field,” whereas previous court decisions have ruled that the only constitutionally permissible rationale for campaign finance limits is to prevent the appearance of corruption.
The high court has only itself to blame for facing such an arcane case. It should have invalidated the entire McCain-Feingold law as an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of political speech earlier, but failed to do so.