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Supreme Court Affirms Ban on ‘Soft Money’ in Campaigns

Opponents of ban say they will take concerns to Congress

Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes says Democrats will use the tools at their disposal to force action on President Donald Trump's ethics. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes says Democrats will use the tools at their disposal to force action on President Donald Trump's ethics. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the so-called soft money ban on state and local parties, prompting opponents of the restriction to turn their pleas for repeal to Congress.

Although proponents of political money limits cheered the decision, they said that new Justice Neil Gorsuch’s position on the case confirmed their fears about his campaign finance views.

The ban stems from the 2002 McCain-Feingold law, which prohibited unlimited and unregulated large contributions to party committees known as soft money. The high court on Monday affirmed without hearing oral arguments a lower court ruling that denied the Louisiana Republican Party’s challenge to soft money bans for state and local parties.

“I’m disappointed in the decision, but it’s not that big of a surprise,” said Hans A. von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commission member who manages the Election Law Reform Initiative at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s now pretty clear that the court is just not going to get into this part of McCain-Feingold and if the parties want these provisions to change, they’re going to have to go to Congress.”

On Capitol Hill, von Spakovsky’s side will meet intense resistance from Democrats, even as those who favor campaign finance deregulation have a pivotal ally in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who led the legal challenge to the McCain-Feingold law. They also have an ally in White House Counsel Donald McGahn, a former Federal Election Commission member.

“By rejecting the challenge to political party soft money bans, the Supreme Court has once again affirmed contribution limits as constitutional,” said Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, chairman of the House’s Democracy Reform Task Force. “Going forward, we must remain vigilant against efforts to further erode reasonable restrictions on big money in politics.”

Sarbanes and outside advocates of new restrictions on political money said they were dismayed that Gorsuch, along with conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, went out of his way to say he wanted the court to hear oral arguments on the Louisiana case.

“It’s troubling that we’re seeing the most recent appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Gorsuch, side with the most conservative on this, Justice Thomas,” said David Donnelly, president and CEO of Every Voice, which led a campaign against Gorsuch’s nomination over political money concerns.

Gorsuch “is way out of the mainstream. He’s very extreme when it comes to reviewing these questions about who has power in American politics,” Donnelly said.

Still, political money and good government groups said the Supreme Court’s decision was significant in that it yet again upheld limits on donations to political parties and candidates.

“The most important thing here is the Supreme Court said, ‘Yes, we understand these limits are important because there are remaining questions here about corruption and the appearance of corruption,’” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy at the bipartisan campaign finance group Issue One. “It’s not that parties can corrupt our candidates. The point is to say that parties can be used to circumvent the protections and can be hollowed out just to be these laundromats for large donors to gain influence.”

Daniel Weiner, a senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said the Supreme Court’s decision was a good one for those who think decisions about money and politics ought to be made by the legislative branch, not the judicial branch.

As for whether Congress may tackle a campaign finance overhaul soon, Weiner said he’s not naive about the prospects. Advocates for rolling back campaign finance limits have said the GOP Congress and the Trump administration may prove a friendly climate for their agenda.

McConnell, whose spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about the recent case, has in the past backed appropriations riders to change campaign finance rules.

“The big questions will be: Is there going to be any appetite to do some sort of bipartisan reform, an appetite to do nothing, or will we see some new budget rider that tries to do what the court just refused to do?” Weiner said.

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