The Supreme Court’s oral argument in Davis v. FEC raises deeper questions about contribution limits. Specifically, what are they for? In the so-called Millionaire’s Amendment context, they seem to be adjusted to compensate candidates who must raise funding when beleagured by a candidate with money to burn. Ordinarily, contribution limits are suppose to place a lid on the amount of funding a candidate can take from a single source, to limit the debt – real or imagined by pundits and the public – that the candidate (if elected) will feel toward the donor.
These limits are not always and everywhere the same. Limits to parties are larger than limits to PACs, which are larger than limits to candidates. At the state level, limits to statewide offices are frequently more generous than those to legislative office.
Critics of the Millionaire’s scheme have noted that if the law permits a candidate to raise money at inflated limit levels when he or she is in the fight of his or her political career against the self-funder, this raises doubts on the legal justification for limits at lower levels. If a check for $8,000 isn’t corrupting in this situation, when is it ever?
Does the existence of varied limits in state contexts speak to this? Well, no. This law is unique in that it sets different limits for candidates to the same seat in the same race. However one feels about the propriety of scaled limits that differentiate among offices at the state level, that issue has very little to do with the one presented by the Davis case.
The big issue in Davis is how closely the Court will review a contribution limit in this context – when different limits (that go up and down, by the way) are applied in the same race. Will it look closely and skeptically at the purpose of the law? Will it take a pass, deferring to the "expertise" of congressional incumbents (who are not at all fond of the rich challenger)? What is an "important" state interest, and does it permit Congress to write a law that treats candidates in the same race for the very same seat differently?
It really is too bad that Davis didn’t include all the existential questions raised under this amendment when a third party candidate is involved, such as "what is ‘the opponent’ . . ." But it is enough for now to open the issue of the proper standard of review for contribution limit laws, and what forms of limits are within Congress’s power to impose.