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Limits on Money in Campaigns - Legal Case Series - Buckley v Valeo

President Nixon is famous, or infamous, for the Watergate scandal. During this era, the Presidential election of 1972 was fairly charged as the Vietnam War weighed heavily on America, and Americans were deeply divided over America’s involvement in the War. President Nixon and his advisors felt that it was necessary to conduct a strong campaign in order for him to stay in office.

They decided to conduct illegal searches of the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters, where they broke in, stole copies of top-secret documents, and bugged the office’s phones. They were able to pull of their first go round with their illegal activities without being detected, but the wiretaps they placed on the phones did not work as they wanted. So, five individuals returned to Watergate to break in again and fix the wiretaps.

This time, they were caught. When the five were caught, America did not know that President Nixon was involved. Two months or so later, President Nixon gave a speech and swore that his White House staff was not involved in the break-in. In November of that same year (1972), President Nixon was reelected in a landslide victory.

However, facts slowly came to light, including the fact that Nixon arranged to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to the burglars as “hush money”. Also, it became known that Nixon and his aids had also come up with a plan that instructed the CIA to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into Watergate.

By 1974, most of the facts had come to light, and President Nixon resigned. Gerald Ford then became President and pardoned Nixon, but he let others involved remain in prison. With America suddenly facing the harsh reality that individuals conspire for power and conduct illegal activities to remain in power, a comprehensive reform to the nation’s campaign finance laws was introduced as legislation to help root out “corruption” by amending a previous act. The legislation amended and significantly broadened the Federal Election Campaign Act (“FECA”).

Gerald Ford signed the FECA amendments into law. It would be necessary for him to distance himself from “corruption”, and so a law like the FECA amendments could look good for him to support. However, a number of elected officials, political parties, and the like challenged the legislation in court.

FECA had many provisions, but among those that were challenged included some of the following:

· Limits on the amount of monetary contributions an individual could give to candidates for federal office;

· Limits on expenditures by individuals that were “relative to a clearly identified candidate”;

· Limits on amounts a candidate could spend from his personal or family funds;

· Requirements that political committees keep detailed records of contributions and expenditures, including the name and address of each individual contributing in excess of $10, and the donor’s occupation and principal place of business if over $100; and

· The creation of the Federal Election Commission with members appointed by a variety of means.

FECA, it was argued, would help stop corruption in politics by limiting what people can spend and requiring disclosure of money received or spent and who it came from.

When the Supreme Court reviewed the amendments, the Court upheld some of the provisions but struck down others. This divided approach has led to a number of the current situations with PAC’s, Super PAC’s, and other political situations that play out currently.

Specifically, the Court upheld limitations on the amount of money that could be contributed to candidates for office. The Court felt that the government had an interest in helping to stop “corruption”, and that by limiting the amount of money a person could give a candidate, there may be less corruption as it would be harder to buy political favors.

The Court also upheld the concept of requiring disclosures associated with campaign funds.

However, the Court was concerned with limitations on spending by candidates. The Court stated:

“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. This is because virtually every means of communicating ideas in today's mass society requires the expenditure of money. The distribution of the humblest handbill or leaflet entails printing, paper, and circulation costs. Speeches and rallies generally necessitate hiring a hall and publicizing the event. The electorate's increasing dependence on television, radio, and other mass media for news and information has made these expensive modes of communication indispensable instruments of effective political speech.” Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 19 (1976).

In other words, money was so closely connected to speech, that the Court felt a limitation on the amount of money that could be spent was a limitation on the amount of speech that was possible, and the Court did not feel that it was permissible under the Constitution to limit the quantity of speech.

Later cases would clarify that limits on “independent expenditures”, or those made by individuals or groups that were not coordinated with a candidate, could not be restricted since the interest in stopping corruption was not as strong when the candidate was not receiving the money themselves. Additionally, as a candidate’s own money could not ‘corrupt’ them (since nobody was buying a favor from them), limits on expenditures of the candidate’s own money were also struck down as unconstitutional.

Interestingly, Federal law on campaign finances has grown to thousands and thousands of pages of regulations surrounding political speech during elections. Citizens can be required to disclose funds they spend in support of or against a candidate for federal office, which also means that citizens can be identified and retaliated against for supporting or opposing a candidate. However, shining light on the funds exchanged likely does do something to help reduce corruption to some extent.

Most Americans do not know that there are complex laws associated with political speech during campaigns as most feel that they can say what they want without regulation. However, while these laws are not widely known, campaign finance laws and requirements factor heavily into the ability of potential candidates to raise money, and they greatly impact a third party’s ability to raise enough funds to become a viable party.

Interestingly, while these laws are aimed at shining the light on “corruption” by focusing on the election phase, America has largely ignored any meaningful disclosures or shining of the light on the legislative process. Groups have created powerful lobbies, and they spend a lot of money to pass laws that benefit them. Little is known about what happens behind all of the closed doors associated with lawmaking and the wheeling and dealing that takes place. It is interesting to see that politicians voluntarily passed regulation on campaign financing (where it makes it more difficult for challengers to incumbents to win as they cannot raise as much money due to the limits imposed), but they have not voluntarily passed significant regulations to shine the light on the legislative process.

To some, FECA represents a great step forward in helping to root out corruption, while to others it represents a disguised way to protect incumbents and stop third parties from forming.

Overall though, FECA is a reality of our current political situation, and gaining an understanding of campaign finance laws and all that it entails enables each of us to be a better voice in shaping the attempts to place checks and balances on government officials that may be willing to conspire for power or pursue illegal means to obtain more power.


At Believe, we are promoting the Constitution through education and discussing the relevant issues. These small highlights are part of a bigger monthly discussion, with discussions taking place in person and online. The discussions are free and are aimed at empowering through education. You can view the relevant and upcoming discussions at our page on The Law under the "Constitution Series".

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