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Republicans File Suit To End McCain-Feingold Reform Law, Raise Unlimited Funds

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RNC MCCAIN FEINGOLD
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is leading efforts by the committee to challenge campaign finance laws, including the 2002 McCain-Feingold law, in court. | Bill Clark via Getty Images
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WASHINGTON -- The Republican National Committee and the Louisiana Republican Party filed suit in federal court Friday to overturn the decadeslong ban on unlimited contributions to political parties enacted in the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law.

According to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the groups desire to launch their own affiliated super PACs -- referred to as "non-contribution accounts" -- to raise unlimited funds from individual donors and spend the money on independent expenditures to help elect candidates for the White House and Congress.

The challenge was entirely predictable as it had already been reported that Republicans would back a motion at a party meeting to file suit against the ban on unlimited party money. The Supreme Court's April decision in the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case also included language suggesting the conservative majority would be receptive to a challenge to the McCain-Feingold law. Following that decision, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus indicated his desire to chip away at all campaign finance laws, possibly including disclosures of donations.

At the heart of this challenge are the decisions issued by the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and the 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC cases. Both of these decisions limited the scope of government action to rein in money in politics by restricting the definition of corruption -- the only justification the court sees fit for Congress to enact fundraising limits -- to explicit bribery, also known as quid pro quo corruption.

"After Citizens United, there is no justification for restricting funds that political parties receive for independent campaign activity," James Bopp Jr., the lead attorney in the case, said in a statement. "In an era when independent-expenditure accounts can solicit unlimited contributions and spend enormous amounts to influence political races, political parties are constitutionally entitled to compete equally with them with their own independent campaign activity. Political parties are an important part of our political system and success in this case will help empower them again."

The plaintiffs argue that the 2003 Supreme Court decision in McConnell v. FEC that upholds the McCain-Feingold bans on receiving and soliciting unlimited campaign funds relied on a definition of corruption beyond quid pro quo corruption. Following the court's assertion that quid pro quo corruption -- and only quid pro corruption -- may be used to justify restrictions on campaign funding, the court should overturn the McConnell decision, they say.

The court challenge quotes from a district court ruling in the McConnell case that argues supporters of the unlimited money ban, "ha[d] identified not a single discrete instance of quid pro quo corruption attributable to the donation of non-federal funds to the national party committees."

In response, the challenge states that following its Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings, the Supreme Court "requires evidence of quid-pro-quo corruption to uphold such restrictions."

The McCain-Feingold law was a bipartisan reform enacted after growing concern that the use of unlimited funds raised in "soft money" accounts by political parties had subverted the campaign finance reform system enacted in the 1970s and allowed big money to influence policy decisions. The soft money accounts were originally supposed to be used for party-building activities, but were eventually turned into slush funds for political operatives to use on "issue" advertisements bashing their opponents and boosting their favored candidates.

Following the 1996 election cycle, during which the Democratic Party and the Clinton White House went to great lengths to raise and spend soft money to defeat Republicans, the Republican Senate launched an investigation into campaign finance abuses. Congress did not pass the reform law, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), until anger over the Enron accounting scandal and the fraudulent energy company's political dealings forced lawmakers to act.

Reform proponents state that this challenge is more than just a challenge to the McCain-Feingold law, but part of a broader strategy to attack the entire campaign finance system.

"Really it's about a larger strategy, a legal strategy to chip away at contribution limits," said Nick Nyhart, president of the campaign finance watchdog Public Campaign.

The challengers are also asking the courts to strike down limits on the use of funds raised by state parties under state campaign finance laws for federal elections. Currently, state parties must raise federal funds -- limited to donations of $10,000 per donor per year -- if they plan to spend money on federal elections for the House, Senate or White House. Many states have looser restrictions, or none at all, on campaign fundraising.

In Louisiana, there are no limits on how much a candidate or political party can raise from a single donor. The Louisiana Republican Party, along with two local parish parties in the state, is asking in the challenge to be able to use these unlimited funds on federal elections.

This challenge is nearly identical to a case filed by the RNC in 2008 and rejected by the Supreme Court in 2010. However, now it comes just months after Republican FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman sent out a signal to would-be campaign finance reform challengers that the courts may look on this ban in a new light.

Fred Wertheimer, president of the reform group Democracy 21, knocked reform opponents for trying a third time -- after the McConnell and the 2010 RNC case -- to overturn McCain-Feingold.

"The RNC is attempting to sell an illusion that the RNC can raise and spend soft money without raising and spending the soft money that the law, upheld by the Supreme Court, prohibits the RNC from raising and spending," Wertheimer said in a statement. "The RNC is also attempting to make believe that the two previous losses they had in the Supreme Court in challenging the soft money ban somehow aren’t relevant to this case and the RNC's desire to raise and spend soft money."

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