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Context of 'November 28, 1984: Supreme Court Holds that Lobbying Expenditures for Political Purposes Are Protected Free Speech'

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The massive Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) is signed into law by President Nixon. (The law is commonly thought of in the context of 1971, when Congress passed it, but Nixon did not sign it into law for several months.) The law is sparked by a rising tide of anger among the public, frustrated by the Vietnam War and the variety of movements agitating for change. The campaign watchdog organization Common Cause sued both the Democratic and Republican National Committees for violating the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA—see 1925), and though it lost the suit, it exposed the flaws and limitations of the law to the public. Common Cause then led a push to improve campaign finance legislation, aided by the many newly elected and reform-minded members of Congress. FECA repeals the toothless FCPA and creates a comprehensive framework for the regulation of federal campaign financing, from primaries and runoffs to conventions and general elections. The law requires full and timely disclosure of donations and expenditures, and provides broad definitions of both. It sets limits on media advertising as well as on contributions from candidates and their family members. The law permits unions and corporations to solicit voluntary contributions from members, employees, and stockholders, and allows union and corporate treasury money to be used for operating expenses for political action committees (PACs) or for voter drives and the like. It bans patronage or the promise of patronage, and bans contracts between a candidate and any federal department or agency. It establishes strict caps on the amounts individuals can contribute to their own campaigns—$50,000 for presidential and vice-presidential candidates, $35,000 for Senate candidates, and $25,000 for House candidates. It establishes a cap on television advertising at 10 cents per voter in the last election, or $50,000, whichever is higher. [Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999; Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file; Federal Election Commission, 4/2008 pdf file] The difference before and after FECA is evident. Congressional campaign spending reportage from 1968 claimed only $8.5 million, while in 1972, Congressional campaign spending reports will soar to $88.9 million. [Federal Elections Commission, 1998]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Federal Corrupt Practices Act, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, Common Cause

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal (see August 8, 1974), amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972) provide the option for full public financing for presidential general elections, matching funds for presidential primaries, and public expenditures for presidential nominating conventions. The amendments also set spending limits on presidential primaries and general elections as well as for House and Senate primaries. The amendments give some enforcement provisions to previously enacted spending limits on House and Senate general elections. They set strict spending guidelines: for presidential campaigns, each candidate is limited to $10 million for primaries, $20 million for general elections, and $2 million for nominating conventions; Senatorial candidates are limited to $100,000 or eight cents per eligible voter, whichever is higher, for primaries, and higher limits of $150,000 or 12 cents per voter for general elections; House candidates are limited to $70,000 each for primaries and general elections. Loans are treated as contributions. The amendments create an individual contribution limit of $1,000 to a candidate per election and a PAC (political action committee) contribution limit of $5,000 to a candidate per election (this provision will trigger what the Center for Responsive Politics will call a “PAC boom” in the late 1970s). The total aggregate contributions from an individual are set at $25,000 per year. Candidates face further restrictions on how much personal wealth they can contribute to their own campaign. The 1940 ban on contributions from government employees and contract workers (see 1940) is repealed, as are the 1971 limitations on media spending. Perhaps most importantly, the amendments create the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to oversee and administer campaign law. (Before, enforcement and oversight responsibilities were spread among the Clerk of the House, the Secretary of the Senate, and the Comptroller General of the United States General Accounting Office (GAO), with the Justice Department responsible for prosecuting violators (see 1967).) The FEC is led by a board of six commissioners, with Congress appointing four of those commissioners and the president appointing two more. The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House are designated nonvoting, exofficio commissioners. [Federal Elections Commission, 1998; Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999; Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file] Part of the impetus behind the law is the public outrage over the revelations of how disgraced ex-President Nixon’s re-election campaign was funded, with millions of dollars in secret, illegal corporate contributions being funneled into the Nixon campaign. [Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999; Connecticut Network, 2006 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Center for Responsive Politics, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, Federal Election Commission, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, filed by Senator James L. Buckley (R-NY) and former Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-WI) against the Secretary of the Senate, Francis R. Valeo, challenges the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972 and 1974) on free-speech grounds. The suit also named the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as a defendant. A federal appeals court validated almost all of FECA, and the plaintiffs sent the case to the Supreme Court. The Court upholds the contribution limits set by FECA because those limits help to safeguard the integrity of elections. However, the court overrules the limits set on campaign expenditures, ruling: “It is clear that a primary effect of these expenditure limitations is to restrict the quantity of campaign speech by individuals, groups, and candidates. The restrictions… limit political expression at the core of our electoral process and of First Amendment freedoms.” One of the most important aspects of the Supreme Court’s ruling is that financial contributions to political campaigns can be considered expressions of free speech, thereby allowing individuals to essentially make unrestricted donations. The Court implies that expenditure limits on publicly funded candidates are allowable under the Constitution, because presidential candidates may disregard the limits by rejecting public financing (the Court will affirm this stance in a challenge brought by the Republican National Committee in 1980).
Provisions of 'Buckley' - The Court finds the following provisions constitutional:
bullet Limitations on contributions to candidates for federal office;
bullet Disclosure and record-keeping provisions; and
bullet The public financing of presidential elections.
However, the Court finds these provisions unconstitutional:
bullet Limitations on expenditures by candidates and their committees, except for presidential candidates who accept public funding;
bullet The $1,000 limitation on independent expenditures;
bullet The limitations on expenditures by candidates from their personal funds; and
bullet The method of appointing members of the FEC, holding that as the method stands, it violates the principle of separation of powers.
In May 1976, following the Court’s ruling, the FEC will reconstitute its board with six presidential appointees after Senate confirmation. [Federal Elections Commission, 3/1997; Federal Elections Commission, 1998; Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999; Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file; Casebriefs, 2012]
No Clear Authors - The opinion is labeled per curiam, a term usually reserved for brief and minor Court decisions when authorship of an opinion is less relevant. It is unclear exactly which Justices write the opinion. Most Court observers believe Justice William Brennan writes the bulk of the opinion, but Brennan’s biographers will later note that sections of the opinion are authored by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices Potter Stewart, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist. The opinion is an amalgamation of multiple authors, reflecting the several compromises made in the resolution of the decision. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Criticism of 'Buckley' - Critics claim that the ruling enshrines the principle of “money equals speech.” The ruling also says that television and radio advertisements that do not expressly attack an individual candidate can be paid for with “unregulated” funds. This leads organizations to begin airing “attack ads” that masquerade as “issue ads,” ostensibly promoting or opposing a particular social or political issue and avoiding such words as “elect” or “defeat.” [National Public Radio, 2012] In 1999, law professor Burt Neuborne will write: “Buckley is like a rotten tree. Give it a good, hard push and, like a rotten tree, Buckley will keel over. The only question is in which direction.” Neuborne will write that his preference goes towards reasonable federal regulations of spending and contributions, but “any change would be welcome” in lieu of this decision, and even a completely deregulated system would be preferable to Buckley’s legal and intellectual incoherence. [New York Times, 5/3/2010] In 2011, law professor Richard Hasen will note that while the Buckley decision codifies the idea that contributions are a form of free speech, it also sets strict limitations on those contributions. Calling the decision “Solomonic,” Hasen will write that the Court “split the baby, upholding the contribution limits but striking down the independent spending limit as a violation of the First Amendment protections of free speech and association.” Hasen will reflect: “Buckley set the main parameters for judging the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions for a generation. Contribution limits imposed only a marginal restriction on speech, because the most important thing about a contribution is the symbolic act of contributing, not the amount. Further, contribution limits could advance the government’s interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. The Court upheld Congress’ new contribution limits. It was a different story with spending limits, which the Court said were a direct restriction on speech going to the core of the First Amendment. Finding no evidence in the record then that independent spending could corrupt candidates, the Court applied a tough ‘strict scrutiny’ standard of review and struck down the limits.” [Slate, 10/25/2011] In 2012, reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin will call it “one of the Supreme Court’s most complicated, contradictory, incomprehensible (and longest) opinions.” [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]

Entity Tags: Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, Federal Election Commission, James Buckley, Jeffrey Toobin, US Supreme Court, Eugene McCarthy, Lewis Powell, Potter Stewart, Burt Neuborne, William Rehnquist, Warren Burger, Richard L. Hasen, William Brennan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Amendments to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972 and 1974) passed by Congress after the controversial Buckley ruling by the Supreme Court (see January 30, 1976) bring FECA into conformity with the Court’s decision. The amendments repeal expenditure limits except for presidential candidates who accept public funding, and revise the provisions governing the appointment of commissioners to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The amendments also limit the scope of PAC fundraising by corporations and labor unions. The amendments limit individual contributions to national political parties to $20,000 per year, and individual contributions to a PAC to $5,000 per year. [Federal Elections Commission, 1998; Center for Responsive Politics, 2002 pdf file] However, the Constitution restricts what Congress can, or is willing, to do, and the amendments are relatively insignificant. [Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999]

Entity Tags: Federal Election Commission, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Supreme Court, in the case of Federal Election Commission v. NCPAC, rules that political action committees (PACs) can spend more than the $1,000 mandated by federal law (see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976). The Democratic Party and the FEC argued that large expenditures by the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) in 1975 violated the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which caps spending by independent political action committees in support of a publicly funded presidential candidate at $1,000. The Court rules 7-2 in favor of NCPAC, finding that the relevant section of FECA encroaches on the organization’s right to free speech (see January 30, 1976). Justice William Rehnquist writes the majority opinion, joined by fellow conservatives Chief Justice Warren Burger, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Lewis Powell, and liberals Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and William Brennan. Justices Byron White and Thurgood Marshall dissent from the majority. [Oyez (.org), 2012; Moneyocracy, 2/2012]

Entity Tags: Federal Election Commission, William Brennan, William Rehnquist, Byron White, Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, US Supreme Court, Warren Burger, Sandra Day O’Connor, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Thurgood Marshall, National Conservative Political Action Committee, Democratic Party, Lewis Powell

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush vetoes the Campaign Finance Reform Act of 1992, which would have provided partial public financing for Congressional candidates who voluntarily accept fundraising restrictions. The legislation would have also put restrictions on so-called “soft money” raised on behalf of presidential candidates. The bill is sponsored by Congressional Democrats, and if signed into law, would have provided public funds and other incentives for Senate and House candidates who agreed to limit election spending. Bush says in his veto message that the bill would allow “a corrupting influence of special interests” in campaign financing and give an unfair advantage to Congressional incumbents, the majority of whom are Democrats. The bill is little more than “a taxpayer-financed incumbent protection plan,” Bush says. Democrats retort that the bill would lessen, not increase, campaign finance corruption by providing public funds instead of private (largely corporate) donations, and note that Bush netted $9 million in corporate and individual donations in a single evening during a so-called “President’s Dinner” fundraising event. Democratic leaders have acknowledged that if Bush indeed vetoes the bill, they lack the numbers in the Senate to override the veto; some believe that Democrats will try to use the veto in the 1994 and perhaps 1996 election campaigns. House and Senate candidates are breaking fundraising records, raising almost 29 percent more money this cycle than in a corresponding cycle two years ago. Much of those funds come from political action committees (PACs—see 1944, February 7, 1972, and November 28, 1984). In 1989, Bush said he would like to abolish PACs entirely, and he now says, “If the Congress is serious about enacting campaign finance reform, it should pass legislation along the lines I proposed in 1989, and I would sign it immediately.” The Democratic bill would curtail the influence of PACs, but not ban them outright. [Los Angeles Times, 5/10/1992; Reuters, 5/11/1992; Campaign Finance Timeline, 1999; Connecticut Network, 2006 pdf file] Fred Wertheimer of Common Cause, which had pressured for passage of the bill, called the legislation “the most important government reform legislation in about 20 years.” He added, “If President Bush vetoes the reform legislation, the corrupt campaign finance system in Washington will be his system, his personal responsibility.” [New York Times, 4/3/1992] In an angry editorial in the Orlando Sun-Sentinel, Tom Kelly will blast Bush and the members of both parties whom he will say “are as comfortable with the present arrangement as fat cats reclining on a plush sofa.” Kelly will write that Bush’s characterization of the bill as “incumbent protection” is insulting and inaccurate. The result of the veto, he will write, is that Bush himself becomes the incumbent most protected by the current system, and “the prospects for meaningful change in a disgraceful system by which special interests manipulate public policy with the leverage of big bucks have been set back to Square One—again.” Kelly will note that at the recent “President’s Dinner” that raised $9 million in contributions, the costs were plainly delineated: ”$1,500 per plate for dinner, $15,000 to sit with a congressman, $30,000 for a senator or Cabinet member, $92,000 for a photograph with the president, and $400,000 to share head-table chitchat with Bush himself.” Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater admits that the contributors were buying “access” to the administration, access, Kelly will write, is “all too often is denied to the people who need government services most and those who have to pay the bills.” All of the $9 million raised at the dinner, and the monies raised at other such events, becomes so-called “soft money,” which Kelly will note has been labeled “sewer money” by the New York Times. While the law pretends that such monies go for voter turnout and education efforts, Kelly will write, it usually goes into buying negative television ads financed by third-party political organizations. Kelly will call Bush’s call to eliminate PACs “fraudulent,” writing, “The same power brokers could simply reorganize as ‘ideological’ lobbies and resume bribery as usual.” [Orlando Sun-Sentinel, 5/15/1992]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (41), Campaign Finance Reform Act of 1992, Fred Wertheimer, George Herbert Walker Bush, Tom Kelly (Volusia County), Marlin Fitzwater, US Congress

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A number of political action committees, or PACs (see 1944, February 7, 1972, 1975, and November 28, 1984), created by “independent” organizations inform the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that they will not disclose the names of donors or amounts of funds raised, because they are not expressly advocating for or against any individual candidate. These PACs become known as “527 groups,” based on Section 527 of the federal tax code. Congress soon passes a disclosure mandate forcing PACs to reveal their donors and information about their fundraising and expenditures (see June 30, 2000). By 2005, many PACs begin registering themselves as 501(c)4 “advocacy nonprofit” organizations. Under the law, such groups can only conduct certain “political advocacy” activities, but in return do not have to disclose their contributors or information about their financing. [National Public Radio, 2012]

Entity Tags: US Congress, Federal Election Commission

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy.Three of the Supreme Court justices in the majority decision: Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Anthony Kennedy. [Source: Associated Press / Politico]The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that corporate spending in political elections may not be banned by the federal government. The case is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205. The Court is divided among ideological lines, with the five conservatives voting against the four moderates and liberals on the bench. The decision overrules two precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, and rules that corporate financial support for a party or candidate qualifies as “freedom of speech” (see March 11, 1957, January 30, 1976, May 11, 1976, April 26, 1978, January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, June 26, 1996, June 25, 2007, and June 26, 2008). The majority rules that the government may not regulate “political speech,” while the dissenters hold that allowing corporate money to, in the New York Times’s words, “flood the political marketplace,” would corrupt the democratic process. The ramifications of the decision will be vast, say election specialists. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010] In essence, the ruling overturns much of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (BCRA—see March 27, 2002). The ruling leaves the 1907 ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates and national party committees intact (see 1907). The ban on corporate and union donors coordinating their efforts directly with political parties or candidates’ campaigns remains in place; they must maintain “independence.” Any corporation spending more than $10,000 a year on electioneering efforts must publicly disclose the names of individual contributors. And the ruling retains some disclosure and disclaimer requirements, particularly for ads airing within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The Los Angeles Times writes: “The decision is probably the most sweeping and consequential handed down under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. And the outcome may well have an immediate impact on this year’s mid-term elections to Congress.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; OMB Watch, 1/27/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010; National Public Radio, 2012]
Unregulated Money Impacts Midterm Elections - The decision’s effects will be felt first on a national level in the 2010 midterm elections, when unregulated corporate spending will funnel millions of dollars from corporate donors into Congressional and other races. President Obama calls the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, says the Court “took what had been a revolving door and took the door away altogether. There was something there that slowed the money down. Now it’s gone.” [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010]
Broadening in Scope - According to reporter and author Jeffrey Toobin, CU lawyer Theodore Olson had originally wanted to present the case as narrowly as possible, to ensure a relatively painless victory that would not ask the Court to drastically revise campaign finance law. But according to Toobin, the conservative justices, and particularly Chief Justice Roberts, want to use the case as a means of overturning much if not all of McCain-Feingold (see May 14, 2012). In the original argument of the case in March 2009 (see March 15, 2009), Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart unwittingly changed the scope of the case in favor of a broader interpretation, and gave Roberts and the other conservative justices the opportunity they may have been seeking. [New Yorker, 5/21/2012]
Majority Opinion Grants Corporations Rights of Citizens - The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reads in part: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.… The First Amendment does not permit Congress to make these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker and the content of the political speech.” In essence, Kennedy’s ruling finds, corporations are citizens. The ruling overturns two precedents: 1990’s Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates (see March 27, 1990) in its entirety, and large portions of 2003’s McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (see December 10, 2003), which upheld a portion of the BCRA that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions. Before today’s ruling, the BCRA banned the broadcast, cable, or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations or labor unions from their general funds in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections. The law was restricted in 2007 by a Court decision to apply only to communications “susceptible to no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate” (see June 25, 2007).
Encroachment on Protected Free Speech - Eight of the nine justices agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements; Justice Clarence Thomas is the only dissenter on this point. Kennedy writes, “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.” Kennedy’s opinion states that if the restrictions remain in place, Congress could construe them to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books, and on the Internet. Kennedy writes: “When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
Fiery Dissent - Justice John Paul Stevens, the oldest member of the court, submits a fiery 90-page dissent that is joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kennedy is joined by Roberts and fellow Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Thomas, though Roberts and Alito submit a concurring opinion instead of signing on with Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas. “The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Stevens writes in his dissent. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.” Stevens writes that the Court has long recognized the First Amendment rights of corporations, but the restrictions struck down by the decision are moderate and fair. “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.” Speaking from the bench, Stevens calls the ruling “a radical change in the law… that dramatically enhances the role of corporations and unions—and the narrow interests they represent—in determining who will hold public office.… Corporations are not human beings. They can’t vote and can’t run for office,” and should be restricted under election law. “Essentially, five justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
Case Originated with 2008 Political Documentary - The case originated in a 2008 documentary by the right-wing advocacy group Citizens United (CU), called Hillary: The Movie (see January 10-16, 2008). The film, a caustic attack on then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Democrats in general, was released for public viewing during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. When the Federal Election Commission (FEC) won a lawsuit against CU, based on the FEC’s contention that broadcasting the film violated McCain-Feingold, the group abandoned plans to release the film on a cable video-on-demand service and to broadcast television advertisements for it. CU appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and most observers believed the Court would decide the case on narrow grounds, not use the case to rewrite election law and First Amendment coverage. [Legal Information Institute, 2010; CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, 1/21/2010 pdf file; New York Times, 1/21/2010; Los Angeles Times, 1/21/2010; Think Progress, 1/21/2010; Associated Press, 1/21/2010; Christian Science Monitor, 2/2/2010]
Case Brought in Order to Attack Campaign Finance Law - Critics have said that CU created the movie in order for it to fall afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and give the conservatives on the Court the opportunity to reverse or narrow the law. Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an opponent of the decision, says: “The movie was created with the idea of establishing a vehicle to chip away at the decision. It was part of a very clear strategy to undo McCain-Feingold.” CU head David Bossie confirms this contention, saying after the decision: “We have been trying to defend our First Amendment rights for many, many years. We brought the case hoping that this would happen… to defeat McCain-Feingold.” [Washington Post, 1/22/2010]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Theodore (“Ted”) Olson, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Citizens United, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, New York Times, Nick Nyhart, Evan Tracey, David Bossie, Hillary Clinton, Jeffrey Toobin, Federal Election Commission, John Paul Stevens, Malcolm Stewart, John G. Roberts, Jr, Los Angeles Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) writes an article for the Stanford Law Review discussing the dominance of “big money” in the nation’s elections in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), documenting his belief that the rise in small-donor contributions that put Democrats in office in 2006 and 2008 led to the Citizens United backlash, and calling for sweeping campaign finance reform. Feingold writes, “Without a significant change in how our campaign finance system regulates the influence of corporations, the American election process, and even the Supreme Court itself, face a more durable, long-term crisis of legitimacy.” Feingold heads Progressives United, an advocacy group that pushes for the overturning of the Citizens United decision and campaign finance legislation.
Background - Feingold gives the background of campaign finance reform in America: the 1907 Tillman Act which banned corporations from spending their money in elections (see 1907), which he says was spurred by the realization that “corporate influence corrupts elections”; the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which extended the Tillman ban to labor unions (see June 23, 1947); and more recent legislation, including the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA—see March 27, 2002), which Feingold co-authored with Senator John McCain (R-AZ). “And for several election cycles, between 2004 and 2008, our system seemed headed towards more fair and transparent elections,” he writes. “But Citizens United changed everything.” The “road to corruption” in modern elections, he says, began when Democrats in the early 1990s began exploiting a loophole in finance regulation that allowed the creation of “soft money” groups (see January 8, 1980, November 28, 1984, December 15, 1986, and December 10, 2003) that allowed parties to solicit unlimited amounts of donations from corporations, labor unions, and individuals. “This system was corrupting,” Feingold writes. “Senators would solicit gigantic, unregulated contributions from the same corporations that had legislation pending on the Senate floor. Both parties were guilty.” The BCRA plugged the “soft money” loophole. Even as the BCRA began to reform campaign finance practices, Feingold writes, “the same corporate interests that fought McCain-Feingold set to work to dismantle it. In what was clearly an orchestrated effort by opponents of campaign reform (see January 25, 2010), a group called Citizens United produced a movie savaging the record of then-Senator Clinton (see January 10-16, 2008). Ostensibly intended to educate the public about conservative concerns regarding Clinton’s run for the presidency, the film was little more than a legal vehicle to challenge some of the common-sense restrictions enacted by the BCRA (see January 10-16, 2008, March 24, 2008, March 15, 2009, June 29, 2009, and September 9, 2009). Specifically, the creators of the film sought to challenge the BCRA’s requirement that electioneering communications—commonly known as ‘phony issue ads’ that attack a candidate in the days before the election, but don’t explicitly advocate voting for or against that candidate—be subject to the same disclosure requirements and contribution limits as other campaign ads.” The case was argued on narrow grounds about a specific provision of the BCRA, but the Court’s conservative justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, “manipulated the Court’s process to achieve that result” (see May 14, 2012). Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent to the majority opinion, “[F]ive justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.” The ruling, Feingold writes, “created a framework for corruption parallel to ‘soft money.’” Instead of “soft money” organizations, Citizens United led to the creation of the “super PAC” (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, November 23, 2011, January 4, 2012, January 4, 2012, January 13, 2012, and February 20, 2012). It has also called into doubt the legitimacy of US elections themselves, due to the “increasing skepticism about the campaign finance system.” Many voters now believe “that the average participant’s small contribution is irrelevant, and that the average person’s vote is grossly outweighed by the gigantic contributions now allowed.”
Internet Politics and Small-Donor Contributions - In part due to the BCRA, Feingold writes, “[f]or three election cycles, in 2004, 2006, and 2008, our system of campaign financing began to take shape in a way that channeled citizen participation and provided incentive for candidates to turn to the democratic support of online activists and small-dollar contributors.” He cites the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean (D-VT), who went on to chair the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as the first powerful instance of “online organizing,” using the Internet to garner millions of dollars in small donations from individual citizens. In 2008, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama (D-IL) pushed the Dean innovation even further. The Obama campaign “raised a historic amount in small-dollar contributions,” Feingold writes, and created an online platform to engage supporters. All told, the Obama campaign raised $500 million online.
An Ineffective FEC - By 2008, he writes, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was completely impotent. The agency “has been fatally flawed since the time of its creation—any administrative law professor will point out that a law enforcement commission with an even number of commissioners [six] is probably designed specifically not to enforce the law at all,” he writes. By 2008, the FEC only had two seated commissioners, and in effect was not enforcing campaign laws whatsoever. Even after eventually receiving a full complement of commissioners, he writes, the agency “remains ineffective, as even Democratic violators go unpunished as conservative commissioners remain unwilling, philosophically, to enforce any campaign finance law.”
2012: Corporations Trump Citizens - In 2012, corporate contributions far outweigh small-dollar donations by individuals. “[T]he most prominent actors in the 2012 election cycle are unnamed corporations and a small group of influential—primarily conservative—billionaires.” Seventy percent of registered voters think super PACs should be illegal, according to polls, and the favorability rating of the Court has dropped a significant amount. Overall, Feingold writes, the public is firmly against the Citizens United paradigm of campaign finance. He advocates strong legislation from Congress, fixing the “broken system of presidential public financing,” and replacing the “dysfunctional” FEC “with a true enforcement agency.” The ultimate repair of campaign finance lies with the Court, he says, noting that the Court has a chance to do some early repair with the Montana case it is now considering (see June 25, 2012). Regardless of what the Court does or does not do in the Montana case, he concludes, “[t]oday’s framework for corruption cannot stand.” [Stanford Law Review, 6/14/2012]

Entity Tags: Howard Dean, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, Barack Obama, Citizens United, Hillary Clinton, Russell D. Feingold, Federal Election Commission, John McCain, John G. Roberts, Jr, Stanford Law Review, John Paul Stevens

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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