Forty Years After Watergate: The Decades-Long Fight Against Political Money
This summer, as we mark the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which precipitated modern efforts to respond to the dangers of unfettered political spending, we should ask why our political system is more awash than ever in secret money. Much of the answer lies in the interaction between Supreme Court decisions and post-Watergate reforms.
In the wake of the scandal, the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) sought to limit both political contributions and expenditures. But in its foundational decision in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), a challenge to the FECA amendments, the Supreme Court drew a sharp distinction between these two forms of political spending. It upheld stringent limits on contributions to other people’s campaigns, on the theory that these limits mark a reasonable response to the potential for quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of corruption. But it refused to limit political expenditures, on the theory that “the First Amendment denies government the power to determine that spending to promote one’s political views is wasteful, excessive, or unwise.”
In drawing this distinction, the Court created a statute that no sensible legislature would have passed. Buckley accelerated two unhealthy trends in American politics.