On May 22, 2017, in Republican Party of Louisiana v. FEC, the Supreme Court upheld contribution limits on state and local political parties. The Court turned away a challenge that would have allowed the corrupting “soft money” that Congress banned in 2002 back into party politics. The Brennan Center and a team of pro bono counsel, led by Brennan Center Board Member Daniel F. Kolb, filed an amicus brief in Republican Party of Louisiana v. FEC.
The Republican Party of Louisiana (LAGOP) and two affiliated local party committees challenged the constitutionality of sections of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) that prohibit them from spending “soft money” (money that does not comply with federal campaign finance limits and other rules) on federal election activities.
In its brief in support of the defendant, the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Brennan Center argued that the Court should afford significant deference to Congress’ longstanding view that large contributions to political parties pose a serious risk of quid pro quo corruption. The brief detailed several of the myriad examples in American history of contributions to political parties playing a central role in high-profile instances of corruption.
The brief also responded to LAGOP’s citation of a Brennan Center publication in its argument against BCRA. The plaintiffs’ brief cited Stronger Parties, Stronger Democracy: Rethinking Reform, which presents policy arguments for relaxing some of the rules around party fundraising. Our amicus brief explained that the paper warned against allowing unlimited contributions to the parties—precisely the relief that LAGOP seeks—because of the risk of increased corruption and the harm to the parties’ role in encouraging participation in politics. In any event, our policy recommendations in no way implied that the current regime is unconstitutional. In crafting BCRA, Congress actively sought to address and reduce the threat of corruption that soft money creates due to the symbiotic relationship between parties, candidates, and elected officials.
On November 8, 2016, a special three-judge panel at the D.C. District Court granted summary judgment to the FEC, upholding the challenged provisions of BCRA. The court adhered to prior cases reasoning that state parties’ activities benefit federal candidates, and limits on contributions to state parties are justified as protection against the risk of corruption and its appearance. On May 22, 2017, the Supreme Court summarily affirmed by a vote of 7–2.
Beginning in 1974, the Federal Election Campaign Act limited the amount of money that individuals and entities could donate to federal candidates and political parties in a single election cycle. Political parties, however, circumvented these limits by raising soft money in excess of those limits and spending it in ways that benefited the parties’ federal candidates.
To address this problem, BCRA strengthened contribution limits by prohibiting both national and state parties from using funds raised in excess of those limits to engage in “federal election activity” (FEA). FEA includes activities such as voter registration, voter identification, and get-out-the-vote efforts that are not explicitly federal in nature but can benefit federal candidates.
The Brennan Center’s research and advocacy helped shape BCRA, and the Center then represented congressional sponsors, including Sen. John McCain, who intervened to defend the law against a previous constitutional challenge. That suit resulted in a 2003 Supreme Court decision upholding BCRA’s contribution limits, McConnell v. FEC.
Briefs filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
- Plaintiff LAGOP’s Motion for Summary Judgement and Brief (2/11/16)
- Defendant FEC’s Motion for Summary Judgement and Brief (3/18/16)
- Brennan Center for Justice Amicus Brief in Support of Defendant FEC (3/25/16)
Other Related Legal Documents