Lift on Campaign Contributions Welcomed by Lawmakers, Criticized by Public Interest Groups

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WASHINGTON -- A Tennessee government watchdog group warned Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down overall campaign contribution limits would send a flood of money pouring into federal elections and would give wealthy donors far too much influence over the electoral process.

"All of those interests have a right to be represented, but we don't think it's appropriate for the degree of influence to be based on the amount of money," said Dick Williams, state chairman of Common Cause of Tennessee.

But a Memphis attorney who serves as general counsel for the Republican National Committee and helped prepare court briefs for the case argued the decision affirms the basic constitutional rights of free speech and freedom of association.

"The practical effect of this ruling is to strengthen the First Amendment rights of the American people and to strengthen the role of political parties, which I think is a positive development," said John Ryder, who also serves as Republican national committeeman from Tennessee.

In its most significant campaign finance ruling in years, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 on Wednesday to strike down Watergate-era restrictions on how much money an individual can contribute to all federal candidates, party committees and political-action committees for each two-year election cycle.

The ruling did not change the limits on how much donors can give to an individual candidate or party committee. Those limits are $2,600 per election to a candidate for president or Congress and $32,400 to a party committee.

But the decision did wipe away so-called "aggregate limits" -- the total amount that a donor can give to all federal candidates, party committees or PACs. Those overall limits currently total $123,200 per election cycle. Of that amount, up to $48,600 can be given to candidates and $74,600 to the parties or other political committees in 2013 and 2014.

The ruling comes just four years after the justices, in a case known as Citizens United, eliminated limits on independent spending by corporations and labor unions.

While the removal of overall spending limits will mean wealthy donors are now free to give to dozens of federal candidates, it probably will have no direct impact on contests for the Tennessee Legislature or other state races, such as governor, said Drew Rawlins, executive director of Tennessee's Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance. …