January 26, 2021

Volume XI, Number 26


January 25, 2021

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Federal Election Contributions: Sky’s the Limit

The Washington Post yesterday quoted Covington’s Rob Kelner in a front page article about the Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. From the Post, “Even though the additional millions flowing to candidates and parties ‘is real money, in the grand scheme of our campaign finance system, it’s background noise,’ said Robert Kelner, a Washington campaign finance lawyer.”

I asked Rob what he meant by “background noise”

Kelner: It is estimated that at least seven billion dollars was spent on the 2012 election.  Actually, the true figure is a good bit higher than that because a great deal of election spending is not publicly disclosed.  So the 11.6 million dollars the Post is discussing is a drop in the bucket of the money sloshing around.

Topol: What did the McCutcheon decision do?

Kelner: It eliminated the cap on the total amount individuals can give to different candidates in an election cycle; but it kept in place a limit on what an individual can give to a single candidate.

Topol: Which contributions do not have to be publicly reported?

Kelner: Among other things, certain contributions to organizations such as trade associations and social welfare organizations that qualify under section 501(c)(4) do not need to be disclosed..

Topol: How do super PACs fit into this mix?

Kelner: There is no limit on what an individual may give to a super PAC in a federal election. And the super PAC may spend all the money it raises on advertising for a single candidate. However, the contributions must be disclosed and the super PAC must be independent of the candidate’s campaign.

Topol: What does “independent” mean in this context?

Kelner: It is a vague concept.  The super PAC must write the ads and it cannot coordinate with the campaign.

Topol: Then these super PACs are tremendously important?

Kelner: Exactly.  If a donor is willing to have his contribution disclosed, he may contribute an unlimited amount to a candidate for advertising in a federal election via a super PAC.

© 2020 Covington & Burling LLPNational Law Review, Volume IV, Number 246



About this Author

Allan Topol, Covington, Environmental attorney
Senior Counsel

Allan Topol is a resident in the firm’s Washington office.  While practicing law with Covington, he has written ten novels of international intrigue and numerous articles dealing with foreign policy issues in The Huffington PostThe New York TimesThe Washington Post, and Military.com.

Mr. Topol’s law practice has involved extensive civil and criminal litigation, with an emphasis on water, air and major hazardous waste enforcement cases, as well as international environmental law and toxic torts.  He has also advised clients on many of...