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Context of 'February 7, 1972: Comprehensive Federal Campaign Finance Reform Law Passed'

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The federal government revises and expands the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA—see June 25, 1910), a campaign finance law that lacks any enforcement or verification mechanisms, in the wake of the Teapot Dome corruption scandal. The amended version codifies and revises the expenditure limits and disclosure procedures for US Congressional candidates. It will replace the original FCPA as well as its predecessor, the Tillman Act (see 1907), and will remain the backbone of American campaign finance law until 1971. All campaign spending is strictly regulated, with contributions of $50 and over during a calendar year mandated to be reported. Senatorial candidates can spend no more than three cents for each voter in the last election, to a maximum of $25,000. House candidates may also spend up to three cents per voter in the last election, up to a $5,000 maximum. Offers of patronage and contracts are banned, as is any form of bribery. Corporate contributions of all kinds are banned. However, the power of enforcement is entirely vested within Congress, and thusly is routinely ignored. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file; Pearson Education 2004; National Public Radio 2012) In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson will refer to the FCPA as “more loophole than law.” (Geraci 2006 pdf file; National Public Radio 2012)

The federal government enacts the Revenue Act as a companion, and precursor, to the omnibus Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972). The Revenue Act creates a public campaign fund for eligible presidential candidates, beginning with the 1976 presidential election, through the provision of a voluntary one-dollar checkoff box on federal income tax returns. (This provision was actually introduced into law by the 1968 Long Act.) The law also allows for a $50 tax deduction for individual filers for contributions to local, state, or federal candidates, a provision that will be eliminated in 1978. It provides a $12.50 tax credit for the same purpose, a provision that will be raised to $50 in 1978 and eliminated in 1986. (Federal Elections Commission 1998; Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file)

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)

In the case of Pipefitters Local Union No. 562 et al v. US, the Supreme Court overturns a criminal conviction of the Pipefitters Union for violating the Smith-Connally Act (see June 25, 1943) and the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA—see 1925). That law bans labor unions from contributing to political campaigns, and Pipefitters Union officials had administered a political action committee (see 1944). The Court, citing the newly passed Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972), overturns the conviction, ruling that FECA “plainly permits union officials to establish, administer, and solicit contributions for a political fund.” The decision is later codified by the amendments to the law (see 1974). (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; US Supreme Court Center 2012)

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; Geraci 2006 pdf file)

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. (Toobin 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. (Liptak 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.” (Hasen 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.” (Toobin 5/21/2012)

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)

The federal government passes even more amendments to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976). The new amendments simplify campaign finance reporting requirements, encourage political party activity at the state and local levels, and increase the public funding grants for presidential nominating conventions. The new amendments prohibit the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from conducting random campaign audits. They also allow state and local parties to spend unlimited amounts on federal campaign efforts, including the production and distribution of campaign materials such as signs and bumper stickers used in “get out the vote” (GOTV) efforts. (Federal Elections Commission 1998; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file) The amendment creates what later becomes known as “soft money,” or donations and contributions that are essentially unregulated as long as they ostensibly go for “party building” expenses. The amendments allow corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals to contribute vast sums to political parties and influence elections. By 1988, both the Republican and Democratic Parties will spend inordinate and controversial amounts of “soft money” in election efforts. (National Public Radio 2012) While the amendments were envisioned as strengthening campaign finance law, many feel that in hindsight, the amendments actually weaken FECA and campaign finance regulation. Specifically, the amendments reverse much of the 1974 amendments, and allow money once prohibited from being spent on campaigns to flow again. (Campaign Finance Timeline 1999)

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)

The Supreme Court rules in Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life that an anti-abortion organization can print flyers promoting “pro-life” candidates in the weeks before an election, and that the portion of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) that bars distribution of such materials to the general public restricts free speech. In September 1978, the Massachusetts Citizens For Life (MCFL) spent almost $10,000 printing flyers captioned “Everything You Need to Vote Pro-Life,” which included information about specific federal and state candidates’ positions on abortion rights, along with exhortations to “vote pro-life” and “No pro-life candidate can win in November without your vote in September.” The Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that MCFL’s expenditures violated FECA’s ban on corporate spending in connection with federal elections. A Massachusetts district court ruled against the FEC, finding that the flyer distribution “was uninvited by any candidate and uncoordinated with any campaign” and the flyers fell under the “newspaper exemption” of the law. Moreover, the court found, FECA’s restrictions infringed on MCFL’s freedom of speech (see January 30, 1976 and April 26, 1978). An appeals court reversed much of the district court’s decision, but agreed that the named provision of FECA violated MCFL’s free speech rights. The FEC appealed to the Supreme Court. By a 5-4 vote, the Court affirms that FECA’s prohibition on corporate expenditures is unconstitutional as applied to independent expenditures made by a narrowly defined type of nonprofit corporation such as MCFL. The Court writes that few organizations will be impacted by its decision. The majority opinion is written by Justice William Brennan, a Court liberal, and joined by liberal Thurgood Marshall and conservatives Lewis Powell, Antonin Scalia, and (in part) by Sandra Day O’Connor. Court conservatives William Rehnquist and Byron White, joined by liberals Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, dissent with the majority, saying that the majority ruling gives “a vague and barely adumbrated exception [to the law] certain to result in confusion and costly litigation.” (Federal Election Commission 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012)

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. (Eaton 5/10/1992; Reuters 5/11/1992; Campaign Finance Timeline 1999; Geraci 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.” (Clymer 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.” (Kelly 5/15/1992)

The Supreme Court rules in the case of Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Committee. The case originated with advertisements run by the Colorado Republican Party (CRP) in 1986 attacking the Colorado Democratic Party’s likely US Senate candidate. Neither party had yet selected its candidate for that position. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) sued the CRP’s Federal Campaign Committee, saying that its actions violated the “party expenditure provision” of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) by spending more than the law allows. The CRP in turn claimed that FECA violated its freedom of speech, and filed a counterclaim. A Colorado court ruled in favor of the CRP, dismissing the counterclaim as moot, but an appeals court overturned the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court rules 7-2 in favor of the FEC. The decision is unusual, lacking a clear majority, but being comprised of a “plurality” of concurrences. The majority opinion, such as it is, is authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the Court liberals, and is joined by fellow liberal David Souter and conservative Sandra Day O’Connor. Conservatives Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia go farther than Breyer’s majority decision, writing that the provision violates the First Amendment when it restricts as a “contribution” a political party’s spending “in cooperation, consultation, or concert, with a candidate.” In yet another concurrence, conservative Clarence Thomas argues that the entire provision is flatly unconstitutional. Liberals John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissent, agreeing with the appeals court. (Oyez (.org) 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012) In 2001, the Court will revisit the case and find its initial ruling generally sound, though the later decision will find that some spending restrictions are constitutional. In the revisiting, four of the Court’s five conservatives will dissent, with the liberals joined by O’Connor. (Oyez (.org) 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012)

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)

Sam Wyly.Sam Wyly. [Source: Forbes]A group called “Republicans for Clean Air” begins running ads attacking Republican presidential candidate John McCain in New York. The ads accuse McCain of voting against alternative energy sources. At the same time, ads paid for by the campaign of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush accuse McCain of labeling breast cancer programs as wasteful. Governor George Pataki (R-NY) accuses McCain of voting “anti-New York” in the Senate, while Representative John Sweeney (R-NY) says McCain was wrong to vote for raising heating oil taxes, a major issue in cold-weather states such as New York. (Garrone 3/2/2000) The group also runs ads in primary states claiming that Bush, as Texas governor, passed laws intended to reduce air pollution in Texas by over a quarter-million tons a year. The evidence does not support the claim; what few anti-pollution laws have taken effect in Texas were written mostly by Democratic state legislators and signed into law, often reluctantly, by Bush.
RFCA Consists of Two Texas Billionaires - An investigation by the New York Times soon proves that “Republicans for Clean Air” (RFCA) is funded by Dallas billionaire Sam Wyly, a Bush supporter, who has contributed $2.5 million to the group. Wyly and his brother Charles Wyly, also a RFCA contributor, are the co-founders of Sterling Software in Dallas. They are also owners, founders, or executives in firms that own Bonanza Steakhouse, the “Michael’s” chain of arts and craft stores, the hedge fund Maverick Capital, and more. Both are heavy Bush campaign donors, having donated over $210,000 to the Bush gubernatorial campaigns. They are apparently the only two members of the RFCA. Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice says of Sam Wyly: “He’s one of the elite. He’s one of the movers and shakers. He’s very big money in the state.” McCain’s campaign accuses the Bush campaign of being responsible for the advertising, and says the Bush campaign is trying to evade campaign finance laws (see February 7, 1972 and May 11, 1992). The McCain campaign complains that the Bush campaign is using unethical and possibly illegal campaign tactics to “steal” the primary election by saturating New York, California, and Ohio with anti-McCain ads just days before the primary elections in those critical states. “There is no question in our campaign’s mind that the ads are being sponsored, coordinated, and managed by the George Bush for President campaign,” says McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis. “I think it’s incumbent on the Bush campaign to prove somehow that they are not involved in this incredible act.” Davis has no direct evidence for his claim, but cites what the Times calls “a tangle of personal, business, and political relationships between Mr. Wyly and his family and the Bush campaign to suggest that their interests were so close as to be indistinguishable.” One of those relationships cited by Davis is the fact that RFCA uses the same public relations firm, Multi Media Services Corporation, as Pataki, who chairs the Bush campaign in New York and who appears in Bush campaign ads. Bush himself denies any connection with RFCA, and says: “There is no coordination.… I had no idea the ad was going to run.” Wyly also disclaims any coordination with the Bush campaign. He says he laughed during the production of the commercials, and mused over how “surprised” the Bush campaign would be to see them on the airwaves. McCain uses the ads to draw attention to one of his favorite campaign themes, campaign finance reform. On a recent morning talk show, McCain said: “I think maybe the Bush campaign is out of money and somebody’s putting in $2 million to try to hijack the campaign here in New York. Nobody knows where it came from. [When McCain filmed the interview, Wyly’s identity had not been revealed.] We’ll probably find out, but probably too late. This is why campaign finance reform is so important.” (Perez-Pena 3/3/2000; Stevenson and Perez-Pena 3/4/2000; Oppel and Perez-Pena 3/5/2000; Ivins 3/6/2000; Scott E. Thomas and Danny Lee McDonald 4/2002; New York Times 8/23/2010) The press soon learns that Charles Wyly is an official member of the Bush presidential campaign, as a “Pioneer” donor, and has contributed the maximum amount under the law. (Stevenson and Perez-Pena 3/4/2000) It also learns that RFCA’s stated address is a post office box in Virginia belonging to Lydia Meuret, a consultant who runs a political action committee headed by Representative Henry Bonilla (R-TX), a Bush ally. Meuret denies any connection between RFCA and Bonilla or Bonilla’s PAC, but admits she is a consultant to both. (Perez-Pena 3/3/2000)
'527' Group Operates in Campaign Finance Law 'Gray Areas' - RFCA is a “527” group (see 2000 - 2005); such groups operate in a “gray area” of campaign law, as the monies they use are not contributed directly to a candidate or a political party. However, they are banned from coordinating their efforts with candidate campaigns. Their ads must not make direct appeals to voters in support of, or opposition to, a particular candidate. If they comply with this portion of the law, the donors behind the ads, and the amounts they contribute, do not have to be identified. The law does not even require the groups to declare their existence, as was the case for a time with RFCA. The Times reports, “While some of the groups behind issue advertising are vague about their membership, Mr. Wyly’s effort was a rare instance in which commercials were aired without any hint of their origin.” Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a group advocating campaign finance reform, says of so-called “issue” ads such as these: “The secrecy aspects of this are taking campaign finance problems to yet another new and dangerous level. What we’re seeing here is the use of unlimited, undisclosed money to influence a federal election, and that’s totally at odds with the whole notion of campaign finance disclosure.” (Perez-Pena 3/3/2000; Ivins 3/6/2000; Broder and Bonner 3/29/2000; New York Times 8/23/2010) Progressive columnist Molly Ivins calls the RFCA ads examples of “sham issue” advertisements. (Ivins 3/6/2000)
Bush Claims RFCA Ads Not Helpful - After Bush secures the nomination over McCain, he tells a reporter, “I don’t think these [Republicans for Clean Air] ads are particularly helpful to me.” But Slate reporter Chris Suellentrop writes: “Of course they were helpful. Otherwise Bush would have called the group and told them to call off the dogs.” (Suellentrop 8/25/2000)
Wyly Brothers Will Fund 2004 'Swift Boat' Campaign, Later Charged with Securities Fraud, Insider Trading - A month after the ads air, Sam Wyly says he will no longer involve himself in politics. Wyly, who says he is a staunch environmentalist, says he admires Bush’s Democratic challenger, Vice President Al Gore (whom Wyly has called a regulation-happy environmentalist, and whom Wyly has considered attacking with television ads). Of his foray into the presidential campaign, Wyly says: “I learned from it. Many of you are aware of my recent foray into presidential politics. It is to be my last.” In 2004, the Wyly brothers will be two of the primary donors behind the “Swift Boat” campaign that will slander and impugn the character and military service of presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA). In 2010, the Wyly brothers will be charged with securities fraud and insider trading that netted them at least $581 million in illegal gains, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. (Ayres 4/5/2000; New York Times 8/23/2010)

After years of battling Republican filibuster efforts and other Congressional impediments, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 is signed into law. Dubbed the “McCain-Feingold Act” after its two Senate sponsors, John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), when the law takes effect after the 2002 midterm elections, national political parties will no longer be allowed to raise so-called “soft money” (unregulated contributions) from wealthy donors. The legislation also raises “hard money” (federal money) limits, and tries, with limited success, to eliminate so-called “issue advertising,” where organizations not directly affiliated with a candidate run “issues ads” that promote or attack specific candidates. The act defines political advertising as “electioneering communication,” and prohibits advertising paid for by corporations or by an “unincorporated entity” funded by corporations or labor unions (with exceptions—see June 25, 2007). To a lesser extent, the BCRA also applies to state elections. In large part, it supplants the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, and January 8, 1980). (Federal Election Commission 2002; Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file; Geraci 2006 pdf file)
Bush: Bill 'Far from Perfect' - Calling the bill “far from perfect,” President Bush signs it into law, taking credit for the bill’s restrictions on “soft money,” which the White House and Congressional Republicans had long opposed. Bush says: “This legislation is the culmination of more than six years of debate among a vast array of legislators, citizens, and groups. Accordingly, it does not represent the full ideals of any one point of view. But it does represent progress in this often-contentious area of public policy debate. Taken as a whole, this bill improves the current system of financing for federal campaigns, and therefore I have signed it into law.” (Center for Responsive Politics 2002 pdf file; White House 3/27/2002)
'Soft Money' Ban - The ban on so-called “soft money,” or “nonfederal contributions,” affects contributions given to political parties for purposes other than supporting specific candidates for federal office (“hard money”). In theory, soft money contributions can be used for purposes such as party building, voter outreach, and other activities. Corporations and labor unions are prohibited from giving money directly to candidates for federal office, but they can give soft money to parties. Via legal loopholes and other, sometimes questionable, methodologies, soft money contributions can be used for television ads in support of (or opposition to) a candidate, making the two kinds of monies almost indistinguishable. The BCRA bans soft money contributions to political parties. National parties are prohibited from soliciting, receiving, directing, transferring, and spending soft money. State and local parties can no longer spend soft money for any advertisements or other voter communications that identify a candidate for federal office and either promote or attack that candidate. Federal officeholders and candidates cannot solicit, receive, direct, transfer, or spend soft money in connection with any election. State officeholders and candidates cannot spend soft money on any sort of communication that identifies a candidate for federal office and either promotes or attacks that candidate. (Legal Information Institute 12/2003; ThisNation 2012)
Defining 'Issue Advertisements' or 'Electioneering Communications' - In a subject related to the soft money section, the BCRA addresses so-called “issue advertisements” sponsored by outside, third-party organizations and individuals—in other words, ads by people or organizations who are not candidates or campaign organizations. The BCRA defines an “issue ad,” or as the legislation calls it, “electioneering communication,” as one that is disseminated by cable, broadcast, or satellite; refers to a candidate for federal office; is disseminated in a particular time period before an election; and is targeted towards a relevant electorate with the exception of presidential or vice-presidential ads. The legislation anticipates that this definition might be overturned by a court, and provides the following “backup” definition: any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication which promotes or supports a candidate for that office, or attacks or opposes a candidate for that office (regardless of whether the communication expressly advocates a vote for or against a candidate).
Corporation and Labor Union Restrictions - The BCRA prohibits corporations and labor unions from using monies from their general treasuries for political communications. If these organizations wish to participate in a political process, they can form a PAC and allocate specific funds to that group. PAC expenditures are not limited.
Nonprofit Corporations - The BCRA provides an exception to the above for “nonprofit corporations,” allowing them to fund electioneering activities and communications from their general treasuries. These nonprofits are subject to disclosure requirements, and may not receive donations from corporations or labor unions.
Disclosure and Coordination Restrictions - This part of the BCRA amends the sections of FECA that addresses disclosure and “coordinated expenditure” issues—the idea that “independent” organizations such as PACs could coordinate their electioneering communications with those of the campaign it supports. It includes the so-called “millionaire provisions” that allow candidates to raise funds through increased contribution limits if their opponent’s self-financed personal campaign contributions exceed a certain amount.
Broadcast Restrictions - The BCRA establishes requirements for television broadcasts. All political advertisements must identify their sponsor. It also modifies an earlier law requiring broadcast stations to sell airtime at its lowest prices. Broadcast licensees must collect and disclose records of purchases made for the purpose of political advertisements.
Increased Contribution Limits - The BCRA increases contribution limits. It also bans contributions from minors, with the idea that parents would use their children as unwitting and unlawful conduits to avoid contribution limits.
Lawsuits Challenge Constitutionality - The same day that Bush signs the law into effect, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) file lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the BCRA (see December 10, 2003). (Legal Information Institute 12/2003)

In the case of Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont, the Supreme Court rules that the ban on direct corporate donations by the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972) is constitutional. The case concerns a challenge to the law by Christine Beaumont and North Carolina Right to Life (NCRL), an anti-abortion advocacy group that sued for the right to donate directly to political candidates under the First Amendment. Beaumont and the NCRL were twice denied in lower courts, and have appealed to the Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, the Court upholds the ban. The majority opinion is written by Justice David Souter, who rules that the ban on direct contributions is consistent with the First Amendment. The Court cannot find in favor of NCRL, Souter writes, “without recasting our understanding of the risks of harm posed by corporate political contributions, of the expressive significance of contributions, and of the consequent deference owed to legislative judgments on what to do about them.” Two of the most conservative justices on the Court, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissent, arguing that the ban is not constitutional. (Brennan Center for Justice 6/16/2003; Oyez (.org) 2009)

The US Supreme Court hears the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Federal Election Commission (FEC) refused to let the conservative lobbying organization Citizens United (CU) air a film entitled Hillary: The Movie during the 2008 presidential primary season (see January 10-16, 2008). The FEC ruled that H:TM, as some have shortened the name, was not a film, but a 90-minute campaign ad with no other purpose than to smear and attack Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) as being unfit to hold office. A panel of appeals judges agreed with the FEC’s ruling, which found the film was “susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her.” As a campaign ad, the film’s airing on national network television came under campaign finance laws, particularly since the film was financed by corporate political donations. CU was allowed to air the film in theaters and sell it in DVD and other formats, but CU wanted to pay $1.2 million to have the movie aired on broadcast cable channels and video-on-demand (pay per view) services, and to advertise its broadcast. CU president David Bossie (see May 1998) hired former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Bossie denies that he chose Olson because of their shared loathing of the Clintons—they worked together to foment the “Arkansas Project,” a Clinton smear effort that resulted in Congress unsuccessfully impeaching President Clinton—but because Olson gave “us the best chance to win.” Bossie dedicated the Clinton film to Barbara Olson, Olson’s late wife, who died in the 9/11 attacks (see (9:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009) “I just don’t see how the Federal Election Commission has the authority to use campaign-finance rules to regulate advertising that is not related to campaigns,” Bossie told reporters last year. (Richey 2/1/2008)
Uphold or Cut Back McCain-Feingold? - Observers, unaware of the behind-the-scenes machinations, believe the case gives the Court the opportunity to either uphold or cut back the body of law stemming from the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, or McCain-Feingold) campaign finance law (see March 27, 2002), which limits the ability of corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising before elections. CU is arguing that the BCRA is unconstitutional, having argued before a previous court that the the BCRA law was unconstitutional in the way it was being enforced by the FEC against its film. In its brief to the Court, CU denies the film is any sort of “electioneering,” claiming: “Citizens United’s documentary engages in precisely the political debate the First Amendment was written to protect… The government’s position is so far-reaching that it would logically extend to corporate or union use of a microphone, printing press, or the Internet to express opinions—or articulate facts—pertinent to a presidential candidate’s fitness for office.” The Justice Department, siding with the FEC, calls the film an “unmistakable” political appeal, stating, “Every element of the film, including the narration, the visual images and audio track, and the selection of clips, advances the clear message that Senator Clinton lacked both the integrity and the qualifications to be president of the United States.” The film is closer to a political “infomercial” than a legitimate documentary, the Justice Department argues. The film’s “unmistakable message is that Senator Clinton’s character, beliefs, qualifications, and personal history make her unsuited to the office of the President of the United States,” according to a Justice Department lawyer, Edwin Kneedler, who filed a brief on behalf of the FEC. The Justice Department wants the Court to uphold FEC disclosure requirements triggered by promotional ads, while Olson and CU want the Court to strike down the requirements. Olson says financial backers of films such as H:TM may be reluctant to back a film if their support becomes publicly known. Kneedler, however, writes that such disclosure is in the public interest. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) is joining CU in its court fight, stating in a brief, “By criminalizing the distribution of a long-form documentary film as if it were nothing more than a very long advertisement, the district court has created uncertainty about where the line between traditional news commentary and felonious advocacy lies.” Scott Nelson of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which supports the BCRA, disagrees with RCFP’s stance, saying, “The idea that [the law] threatens legitimate journalism and people who are out creating documentaries, I think, is a stretch.” (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009) The RCFP has said that the movie “does not differ, in any relevant respect, from the critiques of presidential candidates produced throughout the entirety of American history.” And a lawyer with the RCFP, Gregg P. Leslie, asked, “Who is the FEC to decide what is news and what kind of format news is properly presented in?” (Liptak 3/5/2009)
Filled with False Information - The movie was relentlessly panned by critics, who found much of its “information” either misrepresentative of Clinton or outright false. CU made several other films along with the Clinton documentary, which included attacks on filmmaker Michael Moore, the American Civil Liberties Union, illegal immigrants, and Clinton’s fellow presidential contender Barack Obama (D-IL—see October 28-30, 2008). (Barnes 3/15/2009; Richey 3/23/2009)
Arguments Presented - Olson and his opponent, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, present arguments in the case to the assembled Court. Traditionally, lawyers with the Solicitor General (SG)‘s office are far more straightforward with the Court than is usual in advocacy-driven cases. New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin later writes: “The solicitor general’s lawyers press their arguments in a way that hews strictly to existing precedent. They don’t hide unfavorable facts from the justices. They are straight shooters.” Stewart, who clerked for former Justice Harry Blackmun and is a veteran of the SG office since 1993, is well aware of the requirements of Court arguments. Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative justice with a penchant for asking tough questions that often hide their true intentions behind carefully neutral wording, is interested in seeing how far he can push Stewart’s argument. Does the BCRA apply only to television commercials, he asks, or might it regulate other means of communication during a federal campaign? “Do you think the Constitution required Congress to draw the line where it did, limiting this to broadcast and cable and so forth?” Could the law limit a corporation from “providing the same thing in a book? Would the Constitution permit the restriction of all those as well?” Stewart says that the BCRA indeed imposes such restrictions, stating, “Those could have been applied to additional media as well.” Could the government regulate the content of a book? Alito asks. “That’s pretty incredible. You think that if a book was published, a campaign biography that was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, that could be banned?” Stewart, who tardily realizes where Alito was going, attempts to recover. “I’m not saying it could be banned,” he responds. “I’m saying that Congress could prohibit the use of corporate treasury funds and could require a corporation to publish it using its—” Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a “swing” justice in some areas but a reliable conservative vote in campaign-spending cases, interrupts Stewart. “Well, suppose it were an advocacy organization that had a book,” Kennedy says. “Your position is that, under the Constitution, the advertising for this book or the sale for the book itself could be prohibited within the 60- and 30-day periods?” Stewart gives what Toobin later calls “a reluctant, qualified yes.” At this point, Roberts speaks up. According to Toobin, Roberts intends to paint Stewart into something of a corner. “If it has one name, one use of the candidate’s name, it would be covered, correct?” Roberts asks. Stewart responds, “That’s correct.” Roberts then asks, “If it’s a 500-page book, and at the end it says, ‘And so vote for X,’ the government could ban that?” Stewart responds, “Well, if it says ‘vote for X,’ it would be express advocacy and it would be covered by the preexisting Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, and January 8, 1980) provisions.” Toobin later writes that with their “artful questioning, Alito, Kennedy, and Roberts ha[ve] turned a fairly obscure case about campaign-finance reform into a battle over government censorship.” Unwittingly, Stewart has argued that the government has the right to censor books because of a single line. Toobin later writes that Stewart is incorrect, that the government could not ban or censor books because of McCain-Feingold. The law applies to television advertisements, and stems from, as Toobin will write, “the pervasive influence of television advertising on electoral politics, the idea that commercials are somehow unavoidable in contemporary American life. The influence of books operates in a completely different way. Individuals have to make an affirmative choice to acquire and read a book. Congress would have no reason, and no justification, to ban a book under the First Amendment.” Legal scholars and pundits will later argue about Stewart’s answers to the three justices’ questions, but, as Toobin will later write, “the damage to the government’s case had been profound.” (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Behind the Scenes - Unbeknownst to the lawyers and the media, the Court initially renders a 5-4 verdict in favor of CU, and strikes down decades of campaign finance law, before withdrawing its verdict and agreeing to hear rearguments in the fall (see June 29, 2009). Toobin will write that the entire case is orchestrated behind the scenes, by Roberts and his fellow majority conservatives. Toobin will write of “a lengthy and bitter behind-the-scenes struggle among the justices that produced both secret unpublished opinions and a rare reargument of a case” that “reflects the aggressive conservative judicial activism of the Roberts Court.” Toobin will write that although the five conservatives are involved in broadening the scope of the case, and Kennedy actually writes the majority decision, “the result represented a triumph for Chief Justice Roberts. Even without writing the opinion, Roberts, more than anyone, shaped what the Court did. As American politics assumes its new form in the post-Citizens United era, the credit or the blame goes mostly to him.” The initial vote on the case is 5-4, with the five conservative justices—Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Clarence Thomas—taking the majority.
Expansive Concurrence Becomes the Majority Opinion - At the outset, the case is decided on the basis of Olson’s narrow arguments, regarding the issue of a documentary being made available on demand by a nonprofit organization (CU). Roberts takes the majority opinion onto himself. The four liberals in the minority are confident Roberts’s opinion would be as narrow as Olson’s arguments. Roberts’s draft opinion is indeed that narrow. Kennedy writes a concurrence opining that the Court should go further and overturn McCain-Feingold, the 1990 Austin decision (see March 27, 1990), and end the ban on corporate donations to campaigns (see 1907). When the draft opinions circulates, the other three conservatives begin rallying towards Kennedy’s more expansive concurrence. Roberts then withdraws his draft and lets Kennedy write the majority opinion in line with his concurrence. Toobin later writes: “The new majority opinion transformed Citizens United into a vehicle for rewriting decades of constitutional law in a case where the lawyer had not even raised those issues. Roberts’s approach to Citizens United conflicted with the position he had taken earlier in the term.” During arguments in a different case, Roberts had “berated at length” a lawyer “for his temerity in raising an issue that had not been addressed in the petition. Now Roberts was doing nearly the same thing to upset decades of settled expectations.”
Dissent - The senior Justice in the minority, John Paul Stevens, initially assigns the main dissent to Justice David Souter. Souter, who is in the process of retiring from the Court, writes a stinging dissent that documents some of the behind-the-scenes machinations in the case, including an accusation that Roberts violated the Court’s procedures to get the outcome he wanted. Toobin will call Souter’s planned dissent “an extraordinary, bridge-burning farewell to the Court” that Roberts feels “could damage the Court’s credibility.” Roberts offers a compromise: Souter will withdraw his dissent if the Court schedules a reargument of the case in the fall of 2009 (see June 29, 2009). The second argument would feature different “Questions Presented,” and the stakes of the case would be far clearer. The four minority justices find themselves in something of a conundrum. They feel that to offer the Kennedy opinion as it stands would be to “sandbag” them and the entire case, while a reargument would at least present the issues that the opinion was written to reflect. And there is already a 5-4 majority in favor of Kennedy’s expansive opinion. The liberals, with little hope of actually winning the case, agree to the reargument. The June 29, 2009 announcement will inform the parties that the Court is considering overturning two key decisions regarding campaign finance restrictions, including a decision rendered by the Roberts court (see March 27, 1990 and December 10, 2003) and allow essentially unlimited corporate spending in federal elections. Court observers will understand that the Court is not in the habit of publicly asking whether a previous Court decision should be overruled unless a majority is already prepared to do just that. Toobin will call Roberts and his four colleagues “impatient” to make the decision, in part because an early decision would allow the ruling to impact the 2010 midterm elections. (Toobin 5/21/2012)
Created to Give Courts Shot at McCain-Feingold - Critics, as yet unaware of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, will later say 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 will say: “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.” Bossie himself will later confirm that contention, saying: “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.” (Rucker 1/22/2010) CU’s original lawyer on the case, James Bopp, will later verify that the case was brought specifically to give the Court a chance to cut back or overturn campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010). The Court will indeed overturn McCain-Feingold in the CU decision (see January 21, 2010).

The New York Times calls today’s ruling in the Citizens United case (see January 21, 2010) “disastrous,” saying that “the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century.” The Court has used the excuse of the First Amendment (see January 21, 2010) to “pave… the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.” The Times recommends that Congress should “act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy.” In essence, the Times writes, lobbyists for corporate, labor, and special interests now have the power to sway elections in the directions they prefer. And the ruling gives those same interests the power to intimidate and even coerce candidates. “If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest,” the Times writes, “its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.” The Times notes that since the inception of the nation, its founders have “warned about the dangers of corporate influence. The Constitution they wrote mentions many things and assigns them rights and protections—the people, militias, the press, religions. But it does not mention corporations.” Corporate money has been banned from elections since 1907 (see 1907), and that ban has been in place, in one form or another (see June 25, 1910, 1925, 1935, 1940, June 25, 1943, June 23, 1947, March 11, 1957, February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, January 30, 1976, January 8, 1980, March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), until today. The Times accuses the Court of “overreach[ing],” using “a case involving a narrower, technical question involving the broadcast of a movie that attacked Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign (see January 10-16, 2008). The Court elevated that case to a forum for striking down the entire ban on corporate spending and then rushed the process of hearing the case at breakneck speed. It gave lawyers a month to prepare briefs on an issue of enormous complexity (see June 29, 2009), and it scheduled arguments during its vacation” (see September 9, 2009). The Times says the ruling is “deeply wrong on the law,” particularly in declaring corporations as equivalent to people, with the same First Amendment rights. “It is an odd claim since companies are creations of the state that exist to make money. They are given special privileges, including different tax rates, to do just that. It was a fundamental misreading of the Constitution to say that these artificial legal constructs have the same right to spend money on politics as ordinary Americans have to speak out in support of a candidate.” And the Times derides the statement in the Court’s majority opinion that says independent corporate expenditures “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” citing Senator John McCain (R-AZ)‘s characterization of the Court’s reasoning as being plagued by “extreme naivete.” The Citizens United case is, the Times writes, “likely to be viewed as a shameful bookend to Bush v. Gore (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000). With one 5-to-4 decision, the Court’s conservative majority stopped valid votes from being counted to ensure the election of a conservative president. Now a similar conservative majority has distorted the political system to ensure that Republican candidates will be at an enormous advantage in future elections.” The only two ways to rectify the situation, the Times concludes, are to overturn the ruling via Congressional legislation and have a future Court—with a different makeup—overturn the decision itself. (New York Times 1/21/2010)

The Washington, DC, Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously holds that provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972, 1974, and May 11, 1976) violate the First Amendment in the case of a nonprofit, unincorporated organization called SpeechNow.org. SpeechNow collects contributions from individuals, but not corporations, and attempted to collect contributions in excess of what FECA allows. In late 2007, SpeechNow asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) if its fundraising plans would require it to register as a political committee, and the FEC responded that the law would require such registration, thus placing SpeechNow under federal guidelines for operation and fundraising. In February 2008, SpeechNow challenged that ruling in court, claiming that the restrictions under FECA were unconstitutional. FECA should not restrict the amount of money individuals can donate to the organization, it argued, and thusly should not face spending requirements. It also argued that the reporting limits under FECA are unduly burdensome. The district court ruled against SpeechNow, using two Supreme Court decisions as its precedents (see January 30, 1976 and December 10, 2003), and ruled that “nominally independent” organizations such as SpeechNow are “uniquely positioned to serve as conduits for corruption both in terms of the sale of access and the circumvention of the soft money ban.” SpeechNow appealed that decision. The appeals court reverses the decision, stating that the contribution limits under FECA are unconstitutional as applied to individuals. The reporting and organizational requirements under FECA are constitutionally valid, the court rules. The appeals court uses the recent Citizens United ruling as justification for its findings on contribution limits (see January 21, 2010). (Liptak 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission 2012; Moneyocracy 2/2012) The FEC argued that large contributions to groups that made independent expenditures could “lead to preferential access for donors and undue influence over officeholders,” but Chief Judge David Sentelle, writing for the court, retorts that such arguments “plainly have no merit after Citizens United.” Stephen M. Hoersting, who represents SpeechNow, says the ruling is a logical and welcome extension of the Citizens United ruling, stating, “The court affirmed that groups of passionate individuals, like billionaires—and corporations and unions after Citizens United—have the right to spend without limit to independently advocate for or against federal candidates.” (Liptak 3/28/2010) Taken along with another court ruling, the SpeechNow case opens the way for the formation of so-called “super PACs,” “independent expenditure” entities that can be run by corporations or labor unions with monies directly from their treasuries, actions that have been banned for over 60 years (see 1925 and June 25, 1943). The New York Times will later define a super PAC as “a political committee whose primary purpose is to influence elections, and which can take unlimited amounts of money, outside of federal contribution limits, from rich people, unions, and corporations, pool it all together, and spend it to advocate for a candidate—as long as they are independent and not coordinated with the candidate.” Super PACs are not required by law to disclose who their donors are, how much money they have raised, and how much they spend. CNN will later write, “The high court’s decision allowed super PACs to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations, and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.” OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan organization that monitors campaign finance practices, later writes that the laws underwriting Super PACs “prevent… voters from understanding who is truly behind many political messages.” (Liptak 3/28/2010; Federal Elections Commission 2012; OpenSecrets (.org) 2012; CNN 3/26/2012; Kavanagh, Slotnik, and Schulten 5/22/2012)

House Republicans rush a bill to the floor for a vote to eliminate all public funding of the presidential election. The bill, if passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Obama, would eliminate one of the few remaining public funding methodologies for federal elections, and, critics say, give wealthy corporate and individual donors even more influence over elections. Public financing of presidential elections was made law by the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA—see February 7, 1972 and 1974) and upheld by the Supreme Court (see January 30, 1976). The bill comes to a vote almost exactly a year after the Supreme Court allowed corporations and labor unions to make unlimited donations to political organizations (see January 21, 2010). The bill, HR 359, was sponsored by Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) in June 2009 and cosponsored by 17 other House members, all Republicans. It would eliminate the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and the Presidential Primary Matching Payment Account. The Republican House leadership did not hold hearings on the bill, nor allow it to be debated in committee. Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) calls the bill “a sneak attack on the system,” and notes that the Republicans had pledged to observe “transparency and openness,” but instead are pushing through such a transformative bill without allowing debate. The bill passes the House on a 239-160 vote, with the Republican majority overriding the Democratic minority. Ten Democrats vote for the bill and one Republican votes against it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has already introduced his version of the bill in the Senate, though Senate Democrats say the bill has no chance of passing; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says through a spokesperson that the bill will never be brought up for a vote. (Kroll 1/24/2011; Raw Story 1/25/2011; Walsh 1/26/2011; Overby 1/27/2011; Salant 1/27/2011)
Repair or Eliminate? - Presidential candidates who accept public funding must agree not to accept private donations in the fall campaign. Every presidential candidate from 1976 to 2008 has accepted public funding. In 2000, George W. Bush (R-TX) did not take public financing for his primary campaign, and in subsequent years no presidential nominee has taken such funding. In 2008, Barack Obama (D-IL) declined to take public financing for his general election, the first presidential nominee to do so. Republicans claim the elimination of the public funding program would save the government between $520 and $617 million over the next 10 years. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says the public financing system needs to be updated. It was created in 1976, she notes, and does not reflect the needs of 21st-century candidates. Lawmakers from both parties have attempted, without success to introduce legislation to update the system. McConnell says that Americans do not believe in the PECF, citing declining public participation. The program is funded by a $3 check-off on individual tax returns; in 1980, almost 29 percent of tax returns carried the check-off, while in 2007 only 8.3 percent of tax returns checked off the donation. “In a time of exploding deficits and record debt, the last thing the American people want right now is to provide what amounts to welfare for politicians,” McConnell says. House Democrats have introduced legislation that would modify and update the PECF instead of end it. One of that legislation’s sponsors, David Price (D-NC), says, “Dare we forget what Watergate was all about?” (Price is referring to the post-Watergate origins of the PECF.) “President Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President, fueled by huge quantities of corporate cash, paid for criminal acts and otherwise subverted the American electoral system. Let’s not return to the darkest days of our democracy.” (Kroll 1/24/2011; Walsh 1/26/2011; Overby 1/27/2011; Salant 1/27/2011)
Obama Administration Opposes Bill - The Obama administration strongly opposes the bill, saying that the public financing system should be improved rather than eliminated. In a statement, the White House says: “The presidential election public financing system was enacted in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal to free the nation’s elections from the influence of corporations and other wealthy special interests. Rather than candidates having to rely on raising large sums of private money in order to run, the system provides qualifying presidential candidates with the option of accepting matching funds in the primary and a public grant in the general election.… H.R. 359 would kill the system, not strengthen it. Its effect would be to expand the power of corporations and special interests in the nation’s elections; to force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues; and to place a premium on access to large donor or special interest support, narrowing the field of otherwise worthy candidates.” (Raw Story 1/25/2011)
Divided Response from Lawmakers - Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) says after the bill passes that voting it into effect “should be a no-brainer.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says that Congress “should come together to ensure that the American people are heard, that they are heard and that they are not drowned out by special interest dollars.” Republicans such as Aaron Schock (R-IL) call Democrats and the Obama administration “hypocrites” because in 2008, Obama turned down public financing. Schock says, “It was President Obama who killed it and made a mockery of public financing of president campaigns with his arrogant pressing of self advantage.” David Price (D-NC) makes an angry rejoinder, saying: “Talk about having it both ways. [Schock] comes onto this floor to condemn President Obama for opting out of the system, and then he proposes to abolish the system so that everybody has to opt out.” Cole also condemns Obama for not taking public financing in 2008, and says he believes public financing of elections should be illegal, but goes on to say that he supports Republicans who take public financing because it is a legal option. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) says: “Special interest money is having a corrosive effect on our democracy, eating away at the people’s confidence in their government and their elected representatives. The one beacon of light in this system is the public financing of presidential campaigns. It is, I would remind everyone, a voluntary system.” “This is an attempt to finish the job that the Supreme Court started with the Citizens United decision,” says Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY). Schumer chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over campaign finance legislation. “It would bust one of the last dams protecting our election system from an uncontrolled flood of special-interest money.” (Walsh 1/26/2011; Overby 1/27/2011; Salant 1/27/2011)
Campaign Finance Reform Advocates Critical of Bill - David Arkush of the citizens advocacy group Public Citizen says in a statement, “A vote for HR 359 is a great way to tell the American people that you want to give corporations more power over our government rather than make democracy work for ordinary Americans.” Craig Holman of Public Citizen says of the bill: “Make no mistake about it: The Republican leadership’s legislation to eliminate public financing is an attack not just on the presidential public financing system, but also an attack on congressional public financing proposals. To ensure that the public’s voice can be heard against the corporate onslaught, we need to expand public financing of elections, not kill it.” Campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 calls the bill “a gross abuse of the legislative process.” (Kroll 1/24/2011; Raw Story 1/25/2011) The nonpartisan Public Finance Action Fund, which advocates for public financing of state and federal elections, says in a statement: “These efforts are not about saving taxpayer money, they are about giving corporate donors even more access than they enjoy today. We hope these measures don’t advance any further.” (Walsh 1/26/2011)
Bill Dies in Senate - The bill will, as expected, not pass the Senate, which is under Democratic control. A similar bill will be introduced in December 2011 (see December 1, 2011), again pass the House, and die in the Senate. (Abrams 12/1/2011)

The Tennessee State Legislature approves a bill, SB1915, that allows for direct corporate donations to political candidates. The bill also raises the amount that can be given by contributors by around 40 percent. Corporations will be treated as political action committees (PACs—see 1944 and February 7, 1972). The original bill was sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) and passed by a party-line vote, with Republicans voting for passage and Democrats against. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner objected to the bill, saying that foreign-based corporations could also contribute under it; House sponsor Glen Casada (R-College Grove) responds by saying that such corporations would have to have a presence in Tennessee to make such contributions. Turner says after the bill passes: “It’s going to be like an arms race with Democrats and Republicans trying to compete for this corporate cash. I just think it’s wrong. I think it’s un-American. Tennessee will rue the day we’ve done this.” For his part, Casada says the bill will lessen candidate dependence on PACs and provide more money to “educate voters.” He adds, “More money is more free speech.” Woodson says the law follows directly from the controversial Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court (see January 21, 2010), which allows corporations and labor unions to spend unrestricted amounts of money in support of, or opposition to, federal candidates. Republicans lauded the decision by saying it promoted free speech (see January 21, 2010). The Tennessee State Legislature approved a law similar to the Citizens United decision in 2010. The new bill authorizes corporations to give directly to candidates and political parties. Tennessee has long banned such corporate contributions. (Woods 4/26/2011; Humphrey 4/27/2011) Governor Bill Haslam (R-TN) will sign the law into effect. Republicans claim the law will “equalize” contributions, and remove the “advantage” in donations from labor unions enjoyed by Democrats. “This basically would just level the playing field, because unions are allowed to do this by statute now,” says Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro). However, in October 2010, reporter Tom Humphrey showed that corporate and PAC donations favored Republicans by as much as a 3-1 margin, an advantage not overcome by union contributions. (Humphrey 10/29/2010; Woods 4/26/2011)

US District Judge James Cacheris throws out one count of the indictment against two men accused of illegally reimbursing donors to Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton’s Senate and presidential campaigns. In the ruling, Cacheris holds that the campaign finance law banning corporations from making contributions to federal candidates is unconstitutional. Cacheris rules that under the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling (see January 21, 2010), corporations have the same right as people to contribute to campaigns. No one has attempted to extend the Citizens United ruling to apply directly to campaign contributions by corporations. Previously, the law has been interpreted to apply only to independent corporate expenditures. In his ruling, Cacheris notes that only one other court has addressed the issue, with a Minnesota federal judge ruling that a state ban on corporate contributions is legal. Cacheris writes: “[F]or better or worse, Citizens United held that there is no distinction between an individual and a corporation with respect to political speech. Thus, if an individual can make direct contributions within [the law’s] limits, a corporation cannot be banned from doing the same thing.… That logic is inescapable here.” In court filings, prosecutors defending campaign finance law in the Virginia case said that overturning the ban on corporate contributions would ignore a century of legal precedent. Prosecutor Mark Lytle wrote: “Defendants would have the court throw out a century of jurisprudence upholding the ban on corporate political contributions, by equating expenditures—which the Court struck down in Citizens United—with contributions. This is, however, equating apples and oranges.” The case, United States v. Danielczyk, concerns accusations that William P. Danielczyk Jr. and Eugene R. Biagi helped funnel a corporate contribution to Clinton’s presidential campaign. The two men allegedly reimbursed $30,200 to eight contributors who gave to Clinton’s 2006 Senate campaign, and reimbursed $156,400 to 35 contributors to her 2008 presidential campaign. Clinton is not named as a defendant in the case. (Barakat 5/27/2011; Confessore 5/27/2011)
Strongly Mixed Reactions - Biaigi’s lawyer Todd Richman says after the ruling: “Corporate political speech can now be regulated, only to the same extent as the speech of individuals or other speakers. That is because Citizens United establishes that there can be no distinction between corporate and other speakers in the regulation of political speech.” Sean Parnell of the Center for Competitive Politics, a group opposing campaign-finance regulations, says, “This was definitely something that is almost incidental in terms of the case it was decided in.” Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a group supporting stricter campaign finance laws, says Cacheris went beyond his purview as a federal judge and ignored laws and Supreme Court rulings before the Citizens United decision that were not impacted (see February 7, 1972, April 26, 1978, and March 27, 2002). Had the Supreme Court wanted to overturn the ban on direct corporate campaign contributions, Wertheimer says, it could have done so in the Citizens United decision. Wertheimer says Cacheris’s ruling should be appealed and overturned. Law professor Daniel Ortiz says the ruling “pushes the outer limits of the Citizens United logic,” and will probably be overturned in a higher court. The Citizens United case differentiates between independent expenditures by corporations that are not coordinating with a candidate’s campaign, and direct campaign contributions. (Barakat 5/27/2011; Confessore 5/27/2011) Ian Millhiser of the liberal news Web site Think Progress writes: “If today’s decision is upheld on appeal, it could be the end of any meaningful restrictions on campaign finance—including limits on the amount of money wealthy individuals and corporations can give to a candidate. In most states, all that is necessary to form a new corporation is to file the right paperwork in the appropriate government office. Moreover, nothing prevents one corporation from owning another corporation. Thus, under Cacheris’s decision, a cap on overall contributions becomes meaningless, because corporate donors can simply create a series of shell corporations for the purpose of evading such caps.” (Millhiser 5/27/2011) Conservative legal scholar Eugene Volokh writes on his blog that he believes the Cacheris decision is in error. He believes the ban on corporate contributions to be legal and appropriate, though unlike Millhiser, he also supports the Citizens United decision. He cites the Supreme Court’s Buckley v. Valeo decision (see January 30, 1976) as limiting the means by which corporations can donate to political campaigns. He echoes Millhiser’s concerns about “shell corporations,” writing: “[T]he problem with corporate contributions is that they provide an avenue for evading individual contribution limits; if I want to donate $25,000 to a candidate instead of the $2,500 limit, I could set up nine corporations, and then donate myself and also have those corporations make similar donations. Few people would do that, but some people who want to be big political players might. Nor can this easily be dismissed as a supposed ‘sham’ and be thus distinguished from ‘legitimate’ corporate contributions.” The ban on direct corporate contributions does not stop individuals from donating directly to campaigns, Volokh writes, and thusly does not encroach on freedom of speech. (Eugene Volokh 5/27/2011) Law professor Richard Hasen also believes the decision will be overturned or reconsidered, citing the Supreme Court’s ban on direct corporate spending in Federal Election Commission v. Beaumont (see June 16, 2003), a ruling that other courts have held was not overturned by the Citizens United decision. Neither the prosecution nor the defense referred to the Beaumont decision in their arguments. (Rick Hasen 5/31/2011) “If this case stood, it would mean the end of campaign contribution limits for everyone, because it would be so easy to get around the law through a straw or sham corporation,” Hasen says. (Confessore 5/27/2011)
Reconsideration - Four days later, Cacheris will ask for briefs from both sides in the case about the issues raised in his decision, indicating that he may well find that the Beaumont decision means that the ban on direct corporate contributions will remain in effect. (Rick Hasen 5/31/2011) Cacheris will not reconsider his decision. (Confessore 6/7/2011; Millhiser 6/8/2011)
Appeals Court Overturns Decision - A day after Cacheris refuses to reconsider his decision, an appeals court will overrule his decision. (Millhiser 6/9/2011; United States Court Of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit 6/9/2011 pdf file) In June 2012, a federal appeals court will find that the Citizens United ban does not apply to direct corporate contributions. Appellate Judge Royce Gregory will write, “Leaping to this conclusion ignores the well-established principle that independent expenditures and direct contributions are subject to different government interests.” (Thomson Reuters 6/28/2012)

Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA) tells MSNBC reporter Chuck Todd that wealthy donors should be able to give unlimited amounts directly to candidates in lieu of donating to “independent” organizations such as super PACs (see March 26, 2010, June 23, 2011, and November 23, 2011). The US history of campaign finance law (see 1883, 1896, December 5, 1905, 1907, June 25, 1910, 1925, 1935, 1940, February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, January 30, 1976, January 8, 1980, March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003), including the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), has always put stringent limitations on what donors can contribute directly to candidates. Asked if he thinks the Citizens United decision was a poor one, Romney responds: “Well, I think the Supreme Court decision was following their interpretation of the campaign finance laws that were written by Congress. My own view is now we tried a lot of efforts to try and restrict what can be given to campaigns, we’d be a lot wiser to say you can give what you’d like to a campaign. They must report it immediately and the creation of these independent expenditure committees that have to be separate from the candidate, that’s just a bad idea.” Ian Millhiser, a senior legal analyst for the liberal news Web site Think Progress, responds: “It’s not entirely clear from this interview that Romney understands what happened in Citizens United. That decision emphatically did not follow any ‘interpretation of campaign finance laws that were written by Congress.’ Rather, Citizens United threw out a 63-year-old federal ban on corporate money in politics.… [I]t was not a case of judges following the law. More importantly, however, Romney’s proposal to allow wealthy donors to give candidates whatever they’d ‘like to a campaign’ is simply an invitation to corruption (see October 17, 2011). Under Romney’s proposed rule, there is nothing preventing a single billionaire from bankrolling a candidate’s entire campaign—and then expecting that candidate to do whatever the wealthy donor wants once the candidate is elected to office. Romney’s unlimited donations proposal would be a bonanza for Romney himself and the army of Wall Street bankers and billionaire donors who support him, but it is very difficult to distinguish it from legalized bribery.” Millhiser notes that Romney had a different view on the subject in 1994, saying then that when you allow special interest groups to buy and sell candidates, “that kind of relationship has an influence on the way that [those candidates are] going to vote.” (Millhiser 12/21/2011)

The Republican National Committee (RNC) files a court brief calling the federal ban on direct corporate donations to candidates unconstitutional, and demanding it be overturned. Such direct donations are one of the few restrictions remaining on wealthy candidates wishing to influence elections after the 2010 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010). The brief is in essence an appeal of a 2011 decision refusing to allow such direct donations (see May 26, 2011 and After). The RNC case echoes a request from Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) that he be allowed to form and direct his own super PAC (see November 23, 2011), and recent remarks by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney (R-MA) calling for donors to be allowed to contribute unlimited amounts to candidates (see December 21, 2011). The RNC brief claims: “Most corporations are not large entities waiting to flood the political system with contributions to curry influence. Most corporations are small businesses. As the Court noted in Citizens United, ‘more than 75 percent of corporations whose income is taxed under federal law have less than $1 million in receipts per year,’ while ‘96 percent of the 3 million businesses that belong to the US Chamber of Commerce have fewer than 100 employees.’ While the concept of corporate contributions evokes images of organizations like Exxon or Halliburton, with large numbers of shareholders and large corporate treasuries, the reality is that most corporations in the United States are small businesses more akin to a neighborhood store. Yet § 441b does not distinguish between these different types of entities; under § 441b, a corporation is a corporation. As such, it is over-inclusive.” Think Progress legal analyst Ian Millhiser says the RNC is attempting to refocus the discussion about corporate contributions onto “mom and pop stores” and away from large, wealthy corporations willing to donate millions to candidates’ campaigns. If the court finds in favor of the RNC, Millhiser writes: “it will effectively destroy any limits on the amount of money wealthy individuals or corporation[s] can give to candidates. In most states, all that is necessary to form a new corporation is to file the right paperwork in the appropriate government office. Moreover, nothing prevents one corporation from owning another corporation. For this reason, a Wall Street tycoon who wanted to give as much as a billion dollars to fund a campaign could do so simply by creating a series of shell corporations that exist for the sole purpose of evading the ban on massive dollar donations to candidates” (see October 30, 2011). (United States of America v. Danielcytk and Biagi 1/10/2012 pdf file; Millhiser 1/11/2012) The RNC made a similar attempt in 2010, in the aftermath of Citizens United; the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of its rejection. (Liptak 5/3/2010; Tom Goldstein 5/14/2012) Over 100 years of US jurisprudence and legislation has consistently barred corporations from making such unlimited donations (see 1883, 1896, December 5, 1905, 1907, June 25, 1910, 1925, 1935, 1940, March 11, 1957, February 7, 1972, 1974, May 11, 1976, January 30, 1976, January 8, 1980, March 27, 1990, March 27, 2002, and December 10, 2003). Shortly after the Citizens United ruling, RNC lawyer James Bopp Jr. confirmed that this case, like the Citizens United case and others (see Mid-2004 and After), was part of a long-term strategy to completely dismantle campaign finance law (see January 25, 2010).


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