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

  • Burt Neuborne
Published: 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.