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Campaign Finance & Constitution

What is campaign finance law?

Campaign finance law regulates the influence of money in politics, designed to ensure transparency and fairness in political campaigns. Contributions can be direct, such as donations to candidates, or indirect, such as funds spent by Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super PACs, which have higher contribution limits and can raise unlimited sums.

The Federal Election Commission oversees these regulations, ensuring that contributions are legally made and properly reported.

Does the Constitution address campaign finance?

The U.S. Constitution does not specifically mention campaign finance. However, Supreme Court rulings have firmly established a link between campaign finance regulation and First Amendment rights, framing these laws within the context of free speech.

Prominent decisions have transformative impacts on this domain. For instance, the landmark Buckley v. Valeo (1976) case adopted the stance that spending money to influence elections is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, while also introducing the foundational principle that campaign spending can be regulated to prevent corruption or its appearance.1 However, it distinguished between limits on expenditures, which were generally found to be unconstitutional, and limits on contributions, which could be capped to prevent corruption.

Following the threads laid out in Buckley, the Citizens United v. FEC (2010) decision radically shifted the landscape of campaign finance by overturning prior restraints on independent political spending by corporations and unions.2 Emphasizing freedom of speech, the Court argued that the government could not restrict political expenditures by these entities. The majority opined that preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption was an insufficient reason to impose restrictions upon political speech.

These decisions underscore how interpretations of the First Amendment deeply entwine with campaign finance. The principle drawn from these rulings suggests that while contributions to campaigns might be limited to avoid corruption, spending is a form of speech with minimal permissible restrictions, elaborating a constitutional protection of spending in political contexts.

How have campaign finance laws evolved?

Beginning in the early 20th century, the United States embarked on efforts to regulate the financial practices in political campaigns. The first significant piece of legislation was the Tillman Act of 1907, which prohibited corporations from making direct contributions to federal election campaigns. This act aimed to curb the influence large corporations had on politics.

By the 1940s, the Smith-Connally Act and the Taft-Hartley Act further restricted contributions from unions. However, it wasn't until the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971 that the United States established comprehensive regulations on campaign finance. FECA created more detailed disclosure requirements for campaign contributions, introduced statutory limits on contributions and spending, and set the foundations for the modern regulatory framework of campaign finance.

Subsequent amendments to FECA in 1974, following the Watergate scandal, introduced even stricter measures. These amendments also created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce these regulations, ensuring that campaigns adhere to the set financial limits and report contributions meticulously.

As crucial as FECA and its amendments were, they faced legal challenges that tested the strength and scope of campaign finance law. The landmark case Buckley v. Valeo (1976) retained limits on individual contributions but declared spending limits unconstitutional except when publicly funded.3 This decision based on the First Amendment's protection of free speech has shaped all subsequent discourse and legal interpretations regarding campaign finance.

The issue of ballooning campaign costs and soft money led to the next major legislative reform: the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002, commonly referred to as McCain-Feingold. BCRA sought to eliminate unregulated, indirect funding of federal campaigns by banning national political parties from raising or spending non-federal funds and by regulating the financing of issue-oriented ads.

However, the effectiveness of the BCRA came into question with the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), which significantly changed the campaign finance landscape once more. By ruling that corporations and unions could spend unlimited funds on independent political advocacy at any time, including closely to elections, the Court emphasized a broad interpretation of the First Amendment's free speech rights.

The seal of the Federal Election Commission, the agency responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws.

What limits does the Constitution set on campaign finance?

In the labyrinths of constitutional interpretation, the debates around the limits of campaign finance unfurl along two deeply contentious lines: preventing corruption and protecting free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has oscillated between these priorities in landmark decisions that have chiseled the current landscape of campaign finance law.

Originalism plays a role in these discussions. Rooted in the belief that constitutional interpretation should adhere to the meaning understood by the framers at the time of its composition, originalists argue that contemporary readings of campaign finance must be tethered to the historical and textual proofs offered by the 18th-century context.

The constitutional purview does not explicitly limit or detail regulations for campaign finance; instead, interpretative decisions by the Supreme Court have set these boundaries. Initially, in landmark precedents like Buckley v. Valeo, the Court upheld limitations on direct contributions to candidates positing that such limits combat corruption without overly sanitizing the discussion forums of politicking—a manifest homage to practical governance and theoretical freedoms conceived by the American founders.

However, when addressing the proliferation of financial influence represented by independent expenditures—particularly through vehicles like super PACs—the Court's attitude of strict adherence to free speech, as seen in decisions like Citizens United, often supersedes its concerns over potential corruption.4 This underscores a judicial viewpoint that association and expression through financial endowment are sanctuaries under the First Amendment.

Legislatively, endeavors like the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act sought to dampen the tides of 'soft money' influencing federal elections. Yet, critic-discerned loopholes and subsequent judicial reviews have invariably weakened their structural adherence and effectiveness over time.

The Supreme Court building with the text Citizen's United, representing the controversial case that reshaped campaign finance law.

What is originalism's role in campaign finance law?

Originalism, with its commitment to construing the Constitution according to the understanding of its framers at the time it was ratified, applies a historical lens to modern issues, including campaign finance law. This interpretive philosophy has become a touchstone in assessing the constitutionality of regulations governing political expenditures and contributions.

An instance where originalist perspectives shaped campaign finance jurisprudence is found in the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC. This 2010 ruling, influenced by originalist thinking, especially from Justice Antonin Scalia, disrupted prevailing campaign finance controls by allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on independent political advocacy.5 The majority argued that the First Amendment's free speech clause, as originally understood, extended to corporate entities, suggesting that restrictions on such expressions contradicted the Constitution's protections.

The debate on the originalist angle in campaign finance was also apparent in the case of McCutcheon v. FEC (2014). Here, Chief Justice Roberts, subscribing to an originalist framework, deemed aggregate limits on how much an individual can donate to candidates and party committees as constraints that did not align with the constitutional framers' views on free electoral discourse.6 Roberts contended that these limits did not directly relate to preventing quid pro quo corruption, the sole rationale the Court deemed constitutional for regulating campaign finances. This decision underscored a narrow originalist reading where only explicit corruption could justify financial limits in campaigns.

Through these pivotal cases, the role of originalism in campaign finance law prompts a reevaluation of the balance between historical intentions and current realities. While proponents of originalism assert that this approach maintains fidelity to the constitutional text and its historical context, critics argue that it sometimes glosses over the complexities of modern electoral and political systems.

As the landscape of political funding grows increasingly complex with technological advancements and evolving political strategies, originalist interpretations will persist as critical fulcrums in judicial decisions affecting campaign finance law. Such decisions will continuously sculpt the boundary between historical fidelity and contemporary exigencies, reflecting an ongoing dialogue between past principles and present challenges in American democracy.

A portrait of Justice Antonin Scalia, known for his originalist interpretation of the Constitution in campaign finance cases.
  1. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).
  2. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
  3. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).
  4. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
  5. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
  6. McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, 572 U.S. 185 (2014).