Is Another Campaign Finance Battle Brewing Over Party Committee Coordinated Expenditure Limits?

United States Supreme Court

United States Supreme Court

The Republican National Committee (“RNC”) and its fellow plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court in their constitutional challenge to the statutory limits on coordinated expenditures by political party committees in Cao v. FEC.  The Federal Election Commission’s (“FEC”) case summary can be found here and the link to the Supreme Court’s docket file is here.  The Court just granted to the government a thirty day extension to file its response, or until February 11, 2011.  (h/t Ballot Access News)

Under current law, state and national party committees are limited in the amount they can spend on behalf of a party’s nominee for the United States House of Representatives or Senate.  These limits, commonly referred to as “coordinated party expenditure limits,” are separate from the contribution limits.  Coordinated expenditures by party committees take a variety of forms, including communications such as television or radio advertisements, or more mundane expenditures such as paying a campaign’s rent, overhead, or staff salaries.

The specific issue in this case is whether the coordinated contribution limits may be constitutionally applied to speech that constitutes the political party’s own speech, not the payment of a campaign’s expenses.  This issue bears directly on a party committee’s ability to express its own views on federal candidates without suffering the burden of establishing an independent expenditure unit simply because the party decides to sponsor a communication referencing a federal candidate in close proximity to an election.

After Citizens United v. FEC, the landmark case that restored First Amendment protections for individuals and organizations engaging in independent speech, the next battle should be restoring the core First Amendment rights of political party committees.  This is an issue worth watching.  If the Court does not grant the RNC’s cert petition, the issue may come before the Court at some later date as an applied challenge flowing from an FEC enforcement action.

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