WASHINGTON -- The Republican National Committee on Friday sued the Federal Election Commission for the ability to raise unlimited cash from individual donors.
The central committee, chairman Reince Priebus and Louisiana Republicans filed a joint lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asking for permission to set up an independent account that could raise and spend potentially enormous sums of money to help federal candidates. Under the current rules, the RNC may only accept $32,400 each year from donors, and local-level parties are capped at $10,000.
"The patchwork of limits on political speech undermines the First Amendment and puts high transparency, full-disclosure groups like the RNC on an unequal footing with other political entities," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. "We are asking that political parties be treated equally under the law."
Super PACs, which operate independently of the political parties or the candidates they support, can raise unlimited money from allies, including corporations and unions. The groups technically cannot coordinate their spending and strategy with their favored candidates, but seldom have they pushed a message that runs counter to the campaigns' wishes.
While emphasizing that they do not want to accept money from corporations or unions as super PACs do, RNC officials said they want to have the same abilities to establish independent accounts that can buy ads, send campaign mail and make phone calls.
"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," said James Bopp Jr., the lawsuit's lead attorney.
Campaign finance watchdogs warned of serious implications if the court sides with the GOP.
"If the RNC is successful, we will again see party committees brazenly soliciting $1 million contributions from wealthy contributors seeking to directly purchase influence over candidates and officeholders, with the party committees acting as the sales agent," said Lawrence Noble, general counsel to the FEC from 1987 to 2000 and now an adviser at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
Friday's challenge was the latest effort from the RNC to whittle away at campaign finance laws, said David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, which backs taxpayer-funded elections
"If successful, this case would give the wealthiest among us even more influence in politics, further drowning out the voices of everyday people who can't write huge checks," Donnelly said.
The RNC has helped to chip away at campaign finance rules in recent years, most recently joining a lawsuit that ended a two-year, $123,200 aggregate limit on donations. Now, donors can give the maximum amount to as many candidates as they want. The caps on how much a donor can give to each candidate, however, remain.
Republican officials emphasized the move was to seek parity with super PACs, which have grown in influence since 2010 and can help a few deep-pocketed donors exercise incredible influence. For instance, billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has spent tens of millions of dollars to help GOP candidates and causes.
"I believe it is my job as the leader of the Republican Party to do everything in my power to help our candidates and get out our message of economic growth and opportunity," Priebus said.
It isn't as though the RNC has been struggling to raise money. Since January 2013, the RNC has raised almost $112 million, the best of any party-controlled committee. Opening the door to megadonors could dramatically increase that amount, if they can be wooed.
If successful in its lawsuit, the RNC plans to establish independent spending accounts for House and Senate candidates this election year, followed in 2016 with a spending account for the Republican presidential nominee, according to the lawsuit.
Unlike some outside groups, money given to the RNC would be subject to the reporting requirements that currently exist. The committee still would file monthly reports detailing where it receives its money and where it spends it.
In addition to the RNC and Priebus, the Republican Party of Louisiana, the Jefferson and Orleans Parish Republican Executive Committees and Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere joined the lawsuit.