One of the biggest charades in politics today is the regulation of campaign contributions, which some in government believe can decrease the impact and flow of money in the electoral process.
These misguided attempts to reduce the impact of money on the political process began in the late 1960s. The first successful attempt occurred in 1972 when Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), limiting donations to a specific campaign otherwise known as “hard money” donations. In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which placed a restriction on contributions to a political party, otherwise known as “soft money” donations. Both of these laws went into effect, but neither law did very much to slow the flow of money into politics.
The problem with campaign finance regulations is not only that they do not work, but also that they attempt to restrict free speech, which is one of America’s most sacred values. Sure, proponents of these regulations can claim that limiting the influence of corporations and the wealthy will reduce corruption, but that simply does not pass the laugh test. However, by restricting political speech to a certain amount of money, you are restricting a person’s right to do as they wish with their own property. What’s next? Will the government restrict the number of hours that you can volunteer for a candidate? They might as well.
There is no difference in principle between volunteering and monetary contributions. Consider this — it is legal for an individual to volunteer an entire summer for a candidate. However, under current law, if the same person used the same summer to do the same amount of work for a grocery store and then tried to donate his salary to the candidate, he could only donate $2,500 per election cycle. Why that makes sense to our politicians and judges, I have no idea.
Thanks to constitutional challenges and the court cases that upheld them, parts of both FECA and BCRA were overturned. Campaign donations continue to be regulated, but they certainly have not stopped flowing, nor should they. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruling of 2010 is probably the most important of the rulings.
Citizens United overturned several key pieces of the BCRA, which restricted expenditures on political speech by corporations, non-profits and unions. According to a New York Times article, in a 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court overturned these provisions by stating they may blur the line between media corporations and other corporations, which may suppress political speech within newspapers, television, blogs and other formats.
This means that as long as the money is spent on independent expenditures, rather than by or through a campaign, the government cannot regulate the spending of unions and corporations. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate.”
This ruling ignited a blaze of outrage from individuals in the opposition, including Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote an ardent 90-page dissent, according to a New York Times article. Soon after Citizens United, the D.C. Circuit of the Federal Court of Appeals ruled on Speechnow.org v. FEC, in which the court established that contributions to groups which only make independent expenditures could not be limited, according to CBS News.
These rulings sparked the creation of a new type of political action committee (PAC), a Super PAC. Super PACs are unlike PACs because they can receive and spend unlimited amounts of money. However, they are not allowed to coordinate with any candidate or candidate’s committee. It’s another workaround! Who would have guessed?
This workaround was so ridiculous that even comedian Stephen Colbert started his own Super PAC, which, according to its website, is “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” Colbert’s PAC is currently accepting unlimited amounts of money and running ads in South Carolina urging voters to vote for “Not Mitt Romney” and Herman Cain.