Campaign Finance Reform & the Constitution: A Critical Look at Buckley v. Valeo

January 1, 1998

Campaign Finance Reform Series: This paper is one of a series of papers issued by the Brennan Center for Justice exploring issues of money and politics.

Discussion about reform of the campaign finance process begins, and often ends, with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).
Since, reasoned the Buckley Court, most campaign speech requires the spending of money, any attempt to limit campaign spending must be analyzed, for constitutional purposes, as if it were an effort to limit political speech itself.

Applying the traditional First Amendment test for limiting political speech, the Buckley Court ruled that congressional efforts to regulate campaign spending must advance a “compelling” governmental interest. While the Court agreed that the government has a compelling interest in avoiding the reality or appearance of “corruption,” the Justices rejected the argument that the government has an interest in fostering equal political participation by rich and poor alike.

The Buckley Court did two things: It upheld contribution restrictions, reasoning that limits help control corruption. And it struck campaign spending restrictions, reasoning that
spending money does not involve a transaction between a donor and a candidate, and thus there is no possibility of corruption.

Buckley has governed for over 20 years. Given Americans’ virtual uniform abhorrence of the campaign finance system, and Buckley’s role as its principal architect, it’s no surprise Buckley remains an intensely controversial precedent.