Written by Timothy J. O'Neill, last updated on September 19, 2023
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, is flanked by his legal counsel Jon Baran, left, and Floyd Abrams, right, as he speaks to media outside the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. The Court heard arguments regarding McConnell's challenge to campaign finance reform laws in the case McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003). The Court upheld the major provisions of the McCain–Feingold campaign finance law, officially known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. This finding rejected opponents’ claims that the act stifled First Amendment rights of free speech and association. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, used with permission from the Associated Press)
FECA regulated campaign contributions and expenditures
The dangers of the amassed wealth and improper use of stockholder and union member moneys have long concerned reformers. However, laws restricting the political activities of corporations were not passed until the Progressive era, and restrictions were not placed on labor unions until World War II. The Watergate scandal that afflicted President Richard Nixon’s administration gave rise to the next wave of significant reforms. Congress required fuller disclosure of and imposed limits on campaign contributions and expenditures in the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).
Supreme Court struck down many FECA provisions
The Supreme Court struck down many of FECA’s key provisions in Buckley v. Valeo (1976). Although upholding the cap on campaign contributions on the grounds that it served a “compelling governmental interest” in “limiting the actuality or the appearance of corruption,” the Court held that limits on independent expenditures unconstitutionally burdened the right to political speech. The Court also narrowed the disclosure rules so that only political advertisements that used expressed words of advocacy (so-called “magic words” such as “vote for” or “vote against”) were regulated.
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