The US Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo constitutes a central obstacle to effective campaign finace reform. The ruling does this in two ways: First, equating money with speech, the decision prohibited governments from imposing spending limits on candidates. Second, by acknowledging that, at the same time, large contributions can be potentially corrupting and allowing them to be capped, the decsion created perfect condition for a black market in “soft money”–high demand for a suppressed supply of dollars
In 1974, Congress passed campaign finance reform measures as a set of amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act. The measures were further-reaching than anything being proposed in the federal government today. The amendments imposed limitations on: (1) individual and PAC contributions to a candidate for federal office; (2) expenditures by candidates from personal or family resources; (3) overall campaign expenditures; and (4) independent expenditures.
Soon after these amendments were passed, a motley coalition including Senator James Buckley of New York, Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court charging that the new provisions were unconstitutional. The plaintiffs argued that “limiting the use of money for political purposes constituted a restriction on communication violative of the First Amendment, since virtually all meaningful political communications in the modern setting involve the expenditure of money.”
The US. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of limits on individual and committee donations to candidates. However, it declared that mandatory limits on candidates spending of their own money, limits on independent expenditures, and limits on total campaign spending constitute violations of the First Amendment.
The Court did, however, rule that campaign spending limits could be imposed in exchange for candidates’ voluntary acceptance of public financing.
Many observers, including constitutional experts, feel that the principle of unlimited expenditures is suspect. Other areas of our civic and political life do not follow this logic but are governed by the principles of fairness, due process and equality before the law. For instace, lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court are each given a half hour to sum up their case. If money equaled speech, they should be able to pay for more time, and citizens should have the right to bribe elected officials. Opponents of Buckley v. Valeo are making efforts to challenge the Supreme Court’s decision. In the meantime, however, the ruling stands and campaign finance laws must conform to it.