The US Supreme Court has approved an important aspect of campaign-finance reform, upholding federal limits on the amount of money political parties can spend in direct coordination with their candidates during election campaigns.
In a major ruling that may bolster congressional efforts to rein in campaign spending, the nation's highest court has endorsed a key piece of the post-Watergate campaign-finance reform structure.
The 5-to-4 decision announced yesterday runs counter to a general trend in the court's campaign-finance rulings in recent years: that the spending of money in election campaigns is a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment.
Instead, in this case, the court viewed the party's expenditure as the equivalent of a contribution to a candidate - and thus subject to limits. "This is a big win for campaign-finance reform," says Brenda Wright, a lawyer with the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston. "Clearly, what they [the justices] did was to reject the idea that political parties should have special exemptions from limits...."
In prior rulings, the court has upheld unlimited campaign spending by interest groups and political parties on independent issue advertisements. It has also affirmed the right of individual candidates to spend as much of their own money as they want.
This latest ruling, however, does not extend the unlimited principle to campaign spending by political parties on behalf of particular candidates.
"Parties ... perform functions more complex than simply electing candidates; whether they like it or not, they act as agents for spending on behalf of those who seek to produce obligated officeholders," writes Justice David Souter for the majority.
"This party role, accordingly, provides good reason to view limits on coordinated spending by parties through the same lens applied to such spending by donors, like PACs, that can use parties as conduits for contributions meant to place candidates under obligation," he writes.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissent, said the majority's concern about the corruptive influence of money in politics was merely theoretical and that party expenditures should be afforded full First Amendment protection.
"It is not just symbolic expression, but a clear manifestation of the party's most fundament political views," he writes.
The provision at issue in the case was passed by Congress in the early 1970s in an effort to restrict the overall flow of money into campaigns. It was aimed at preventing monied special interests from attempting to use large campaign contributions - which could be funneled through political parties - as a means to buy influence among elected officials.
Congress was concerned not only about actual corruption, such as a quid pro quo, but also the appearance of corruption that might erode public support for American government.
The court majority said such appearances are important.
Reform advocates hailed the decision. "It takes away the arguments of the opponents of McCain-Feingold [reform legislation] that the Supreme Court is going to strike down all of these laws," says Lawrence Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. "It also gives weight to the argument that while there are important First Amendment concerns in these laws, there are also important concerns with regard to the political process."
But Jan Baran, a Washington lawyer and election law specialist who urged the court to strike down the party spending limits, said the ruling allows Congress more leeway on regulating political parties. "Today's decision is certainly not a carte blanche to go ahead and restrict everybody's political speech."
This case stems from a 15-year dispute between the Colorado Republican Party and the Federal Election Commission over radio ads the GOP ran early in 1986 attacking the voting record of a Democratic candidate for the US Senate.
The Democrats complained that the $15,000 the GOP spent for the ads wasn't properly recorded in filings with the FEC, and that the Republicans were trying to evade funding limits.
The Republicans countered that the money was spent well before the Democratic and Republican primaries, and the ads didn't advocate the election of any single candidate. They also argued that they have a First Amendment right to run such ads.
In a 1996 ruling in the same case, the Supreme Court said that political parties are free to spend as much money as they wish in a campaign provided the expenditures are made independently of specific candidates.
From the perspective of campaign-finance reform advocates, the new ruling makes it more difficult for wealthy contributors seeking access and influence.
Some reform advocates had expressed concern about contributors channeling campaign contributions through political parties after they've already contributed the maximum legal amounts directly to candidates.
But opponents of the party spending limits say such coordinated party expenditures will only involve so-called hard money, or contributions made to parties within individual donor limits set by Congress.
In contrast, unlimited donations of soft money have long been spent by parties for independent issue advertisements, party-building efforts, and get-out-the-vote campaigns, they say. It is such soft-money contributions that is the focus of the reforms in Congress.
From the perspective of advocates of unregulated campaign spending, the decision marks significant defeat. It may help reduce the potential cost of campaigns, by assigning a more frugal future role to political parties.
Staff writers Dante Chinni and Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor