campaign finance reform

A Brief Overview of Campaign Finance Reforms

Over the years, there have been many changes to campaign finance laws and policy. The goal of Congress, regulatory agencies, and courts has been to increase contribution and expenditure transparency while reducing potential corruption. From Buckley v. Valeo, to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, and finally to the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, Congress and the Supreme Court have gone back and forth on how to balance freedom of speech with electoral influence. Unfortunately, the decision in Citizens United v. FEC has damaged the American electoral process as corporations and unions have unwarranted power over elections because they can spend unlimited amounts to promote or tear down a certain candidate and/or idea. By equating money with speech and deeming corporations citizens, the Supreme Court has created an environment where candidates need to court the support of the wealthy rather than that of the people, disempowering the lower and middle classes.

Following the Watergate scandal, Congress sought to weed out corruption and limit the contributions that could be made to political candidates. This was done by passing the Federal Elections Campaign Act, which brought about new disclosure requirements, limited the “amount of money individuals could donate per election cycle” (Oyez), imposed contribution reporting, and created the Federal Election Commission to enforce the new campaign laws. In 1976, the Federal Elections Campaign Act was challenged in the case Buckley v. Valeo, with the prosecution arguing that limits on electoral contributions were a violation of First Amendment freedom of speech. The Court held in a 7-1 decision that limiting direct campaign contributions was constitutional, but money spent to influence elections “is a form of constitutionally protected free speech” (Nelson). Only speech that advocated the election or defeat of a candidate could be regulated; issue advertising (supporting a certain issue rather than a candidate) via soft money could not be regulated, as long as the words “vote for”, “vote against”, “support”, “defeat”, and/or “elect” were not used. The impact of Buckley v. Valeo was a large influx of money around candidates and parties.

After dramatic increases in soft money contributions to national parties because of a number of loopholes from the Buckley v. Valeo decision, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) in 2000, which banned party committees from accepting or using soft money. Local, state, and federal candidates and officeholders were also banned from “soliciting, receiving, receiving, directing, transferring, and spending soft money in connection with any local, state, or federal election” (Cornell Law). Additional restrictions were placed on pre-election advocacy and electioneering communications. One of the most important aspects of the BCRA, the electioneering communications provision “prohibited corporations and unions from using their treasury funds to air broadcast ads referring to clearly identified federal candidates within 60 days of a general elections or 30 days of a primary of a primary or caucus” (Congressional Research Service). These provisions were largely upheld in the case McConnell v. Federal Election Committee. While the BCRA didn’t overhaul campaign finance, it did close many loopholes from Buckley v. Valeo, thus limiting corruption and removing the “corrosive and corrupting effect of special interests” (Wheeler).

Most recently, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee struck down the advocacy clause of the BCRA, invalidated “prohibitions on corporate and union treasury funding of independent expenditures and electioneering communications” (Congressional Research Service), and allowed for unlimited contributions to independent-expenditure-only political action committees (aka Super PACs). As Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority: “if the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging political speech”. By writing “associations of citizens”, Justice Kennedy paved the way for the labeling of citizens and unions as citizens, the topic of many debates throughout the country. Consequently, corporations and unions are now able to air advertisements calling for the election or defeat of candidates, as long as they don’t use the words “vote for”, “vote against”, “elect”, and/or “support”. Though giving soft money to candidates and parties is still prohibited, Political Action Committees (PACs) can raise unlimited funds from corporations and unions and use those funds to advocate a political issue, all while paying no taxes (IRS). The only restriction on PACs is the provision stating they cannot coordinate with candidates and their campaigns. Overall, Citizens Uniteddrastically changed campaign finance as PACs are now allowed to raise unlimited funds and spend the money around candidates and issues with next to no regulations.

All in all, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC has damaged the integrity of the American electoral system as citizens lose political power to the well-off. By allowing corporations to make unlimited donations to Super PACs, the Supreme Court allowed the indirect buying of candidates as Super PACs can spend millions of dollars advocating for a certain candidate while tearing down others. Since money equals speech, those with the most amount of money speak the loudest, creating an inherently unequal political environment. In the primaries, candidates need to appeal to the wealthy so they can bankroll a Super PAC, rather than directly appealing to voters. Citizens lose their say in politics as their political donation cannot rival the deep pockets of unions or corporations. Instead of being indebted to the voters, candidates feel indebted to corporations and unions and will thus work to help them over citizens. Unlimited funding and spending by PACs succeeds only in allowing corporations and unions to have an iron-grasp on America’s politics.

Works Cited

“BCRA.” LII. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2012. <;.

“BUCKLEY v. VALEO.” Buckley v. Valeo. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2012. <;.

“Citizens United Decision Profoundly Affects Political Landscape.” – OpenSecrets Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2012. <;.

Nelson, Kevin. The Campaign Process. N.d. Outline.

Service, Congressional Research. The State of Campaign Finance Policy: Recent Developments and Issues for Change. Rep. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Wheeler, Nancy. “The BCRA and Campaign Financing.” Hartwick University, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2012.

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