WASHINGTON — A closely divided Supreme Court upheld Watergate-era spending limits on political parties Monday in a decision that supporters said could shore up broader campaign-finance restrictions now before Congress.
The 5-4 ruling affects the money that state and national political parties spend for advertisements, mass mailings and other activities in support of specific candidates.
The ruling does not directly affect the two central goals of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul: to ban “soft money,” the unregulated and unlimited donations that corporations, unions and individuals make to political parties and to put restrictions on the political adds that special interest groups run in the final days of an election.
Still, the court’s reasoning cheered Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others pressing for wider regulation of political money.
“Clearly, this decision demonstrates that McCain-Feingold restrictions on campaign contributions are constitutional,” he said.
The court rejected the Colorado Republican Party’s contention that government limits on such spending violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
Allowing political parties to spend whatever they pleased in support of candidates would open the door to corruption, Justice David Souter wrote for the majority.
The court’s more liberal wing won the vote of center-right Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to prevail. O’Connor’s fellow swing voter, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined the three conservatives, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in dissent.
The court agreed with the Justice Department, which argued that the kind of regulated money at issue in this case, called coordinated expenditures, could be used to flout the federal limits on how much individuals may contribute to candidates.
“Coordinated expenditures of money donated to a party are tailor-made to undermine contribution limits,” Souter wrote.
The term refers to party spending done in concert with a particular campaign but kept separate from the candidate’s coffers.
Largely eclipsed by unregulated soft money, coordinated expenditures are used less often now than when the case began with a dispute over radio ads in a 1986 Colorado Senate race.
The dissenters rejected the majority’s finding that there is no real difference between this kind of party spending and direct contributions by individuals or political action committees.
“I remain baffled that this court has extended the most generous First Amendment safeguards to filing lawsuits, wearing profane jackets and exhibiting drive-in movies with nudity but has offered only tepid protection to the core speech and associated rights that our founders sought to defend,” Thomas wrote.
The ruling applies to party spending for House and Senate candidates, a category that totaled $427 million for Republicans and $265 million for Democrats in the 2000 elections.
Republicans stood to benefit more directly from an end to party spending limits, because of the historical fund-raising advantage the party enjoys.
GOP officials played down Monday’s ruling, noting that it preserves a status quo in place since the Watergate era.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., one of the leading opponent of the McCain-Feingold overhaul, also discounted the ruling’s effect.
“McCain-Feingold advocates can take no comfort in today’s decision,” because it dealt only with regulated “hard” money, McConnell said.
The McCain-Feingold measure has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House next month.
Senate opponents of the soft money ban and some others on both sides of the issue had predicted the court would rule the other way.
Most of those predictions drew on the court’s earlier ruling in another part of the same Colorado dispute. In 1996, the court abolished limits on party independent spending on behalf of candidates, and the Colorado Republicans urged the court to adopt the same rationale here.
The kind of spending at issue in Monday’s case is different, because the money is spent with such a specific intent to help candidates, Souter wrote for the majority.
The cap on political party spending was passed as part of broad campaign money laws in 1974.
The FEC limits national and state parties to spending $33,780 apiece to help elect a House candidate. Senate limits are based on population and range from $67,560 for races in the smallest states to $1.6 million for California.
The case is Federal Election Commission v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee, 00-191.
On the Net:
Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov
For the appeals court ruling: http://www.uscourts.gov/links.html and click on 10th Circuit.