Buckley v. Valeo 1976

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Buckley v. Valeo 1976

Appellant: James L. Buckley

Appellee: Francis R. Valeo, Secretary of the U.S. Senate

Appellant's Claim: That various provisions of the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) regulating campaign contributions are unconstitutional.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Ralph K. Winter, Jr., Joel M. Gora, Brice M. Claggett

Chief Lawyers for Appellee: Daniel M. Friedman, Archibald Cox, Lloyd M. Cutler, Ralph S. Spritzer

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Potter Stewart

Justices Dissenting: Thurgood Marshall, Byron R. White (John Paul Stevens did not participate)

Date of Decision: January 30, 1976

Decision: The Court found some provisions constitutional including limits on contributions, and it found unconstitutional provisions on expenditures and the way Federal Election Commission members are selected.

Significance: The decision greatly changed campaign finance laws. Perhaps, the most significant change was the finding that no restrictions on contributions from individuals and groups could be set so long as the contributions were not directly part of an election campaign.

From 1999 to 2000 a grandmother over eighty years old walked across the United States to draw attention to the need for campaign-finance reform. U.S. Senator John McCain also based his popular but unsuccessful run to become the Republican candidate for president in the 2000 elections on campaign finance reform. What is campaign finance reform and why is it a hot issue? Campaign finance is simply the way political parties and their candidates receive the money they need to carry their message to the public in hopes of being elected to office.

Many believed the campaign finance system at the start of the twenty-first century created distrust and suspicion in the public and weakened concepts of fairness. To many individuals, government seemed increasingly out of reach from their influence, a tool of the rich and powerful special interest groups. Special interest groups gave millions of dollars to congressional campaigns. The laws the interest groups want often get passed, generally leaving consumers to pay the price. For example, U.S. sugar producers in 1995 and 1996 contributed $2.7 million to campaigns. In return they received $1.1 billion in annual sugar price supports. As a result, consumers paid 25 percent higher sugar prices in the grocery stores. U.S. Congressman Dan Miller (R-Florida) in 1997 called the sugar industry "the poster child for why we need campaign reform."

The Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) provided an underlying basis for various groups to spend lots of money in support of political candidates. The Buckley case involved challenges to a sweeping 1971 campaign finance reform act.

The Federal Election Campaign Act

In an effort to control the spending and influence of special interest groups, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), and amended (changed) it in 1974. Unhappy with several FECA provisions (parts), a number of federal officer holders and candidates for political office, James L. Buckley among them, and some political organizations brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The suit was against various federal officials, including Francis R. Valeo, Secretary of the U.S. Senate, and against the Federal Election Commission (FEC) created by the act. Buckley charged various provisions of the 1974 amendments were unconstitutional. He and the others wished to prevent the amendments from affecting the 1976 election.

The provisions in question were: (1) limiting contributions by individuals, groups, or political committees to candidates and expenditures in support of a "clearly identified candidate" by individuals or groups; (2) requiring detailed record keeping of contributions and expenditures by political committees and disclosing the source of every contribution and expenditure over $100; (3) establishing a public campaign funding system for political parties; and, (4) creating an eight member commission, the FEC, to enforce the act and permitting a majority of those members to be selected by Congress.

For the most part, the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected Buckley's constitutional attacks on FECA. Buckley and the others took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The First Amendment's Broad Protection

The Supreme Court ruling was complex with justices agreeing to and dissenting to various parts. However, they did agree on certain basic issues.

First, the Court found contribution limits to be a proper means to prevent candidates from becoming too reliant on large contributors and their influence. However, in the part of the decision which would have the most far reaching effect, the Court ruled the act's expenditure restrictions on political committees was unconstitutional. If individuals, groups, or political committees operated independently of the candidates or of the candidate's election committees, they had the right to freely spend to support a candidate. For example, an individual or group, acting on their own, could purchase television time to explain their views on why a certain candidate should be elected. The Court found FECA's limits on expenditures a direct violation of First Amendment guarantees of freedom of political expression. The amendment declares, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech. . . " The Court observed,

The Act's contribution and expenditure limits operate in an area of the most fundamental First Amendment activities. Discussion of public issues and debate on the qualifications of candidates are integral to the operation of the system of government established by our Constitution. The First Amendment affords [gives] the broadest possible protection to such political expression in order to assure unfettered [free] exchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.

The Court noted that, "Virtually every means of communicating ideas in today's mass society requires the expenditure of money." Chief Justice William Rehnquist equated free speech with the spending of money to promote political views. He wrote,

A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.

As long as expenditures were not funneled through the candidate or the candidate's campaign, they would be allowed.

Secondly, the Court upheld the record keeping and disclosure provisions of FECA. The Court found the provisions served an important government purpose in informing the public as to who contributes and prevents corruption of the political process.

Thirdly, the Court supported the provision authorizing new measures to promote public funding of presidential campaigns. An example would be checking a box on personal income tax forms indicating the taxpayer will allow a few dollars of their tax bill to go to public campaign funding. The Court saw this provision as furthering First Amendment values by using public monies to encourage political debate.

Fourth, the Court held unconstitutional the provision allowing Congress to select the majority of members of FEC. The Court based this decision on the Appointments Clause of Article II, Section 2, part 2 of the U.S. Constitution. The Clause provides the President shall appoint with the Senate's advice and consent, all "officers of the United States, whose appointments are not . . . otherwise provided for. . . " Therefore, Congress could not assume a responsibility which belongs to the President.

Why the Grandmother Walked

Importantly, Buckley legalized unlimited independent expenditures by wealthy individuals and groups. Similarly, the Court in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978) viewed spending to express political views "is the type of speech indispensable to decision making in a democracy."

In 1979 further amendments to FECA lifted spending limits on money given directly to political parties if it was to be used for activities such as volunteer efforts, voter registration, and for campaign materials. This money, known as "soft money," still could not go to specific candidates or to the candidates' election committees but could go, for example, to the Democratic Party as a whole.


M oney in politics flows like water, always finding its way to influence policies. According to American University professor James Thurber in the December 8, 1997, issue of Fortune Magazine, the problem is bigger than politics. Thurber wrote, "As long as we allow money to be an expression of First Amendment rights, those who have money will have more influence than those who do not."

What can Congress do? Here are six recommendations often voiced by advocates of campaign finance reform gathered by Money (magazine) in December of 1997. Limiting PAC contributions and banning "soft money" are considered the easiest ways to stop corporations, unions, and wealthy groups from buying influence in Congress. Cut-rate television times could be offered to candidates who reject PAC money. Tax credits could be given to individuals for small contributions. Require candidates to immediately electronically file their receipts and expenditures with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to streamline disclosure. Lastly, toughen election laws and enforcement by the FEC.

An unexpected outcome of the 1970s campaign finance reforms was "political action committees," commonly called PACs. PACs are formed by corporations, labor groups, and other special interest groups to influence elections in hope of special favors. Operating completely independent of candidates or candidate election committees, they collect and pool contributions with their own money to be spent in support of a favorite candidate. Together with the Supreme Court rulings, the "soft money" amendments, and the incredible expense of campaigning, PACs quickly seized the opportunity to independently spend millions in support of candidates they believed would help their causes. For example, by March of 2000 in the 2000 presidential campaign, Common Cause, an organization active in campaign finance reform efforts, reported both the Democratic and Republican parties had received over $50 million in soft money donations. Many feared the voice of the common citizen could hardly be heard anymore. McCain commented, "The founding fathers must be spinning in their graves" given the influence of the special interest groups. Only new dramatic campaign finance reform could alter the situation. This is why in 2000 the grandmother walked to Washington, D.C.

Suggestions for further reading

Federal Election Commission. [Online] Website: http://www.fec.gov (Accessed on July 31, 2000).

Gais, Thomas. Improper Influence: Campaign Finance Law, Political Interest Groups, and the Problem of Equality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996

Hrebenar, Ronald J. Interest Group Politics in America. Third Edition. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1997.

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