Buckley v. Valeo is a January 30, 1976 Supreme Court case that struck down key pieces of Congress’ post-Watergate money in politics reforms, and set the structure of modern campaign finance law.1 Buckley and the line of cases that followed—including 2010’s Citizens United 2 —eliminated many of the strongest protections against wealthy individuals and institutions translating economic might into political power, and has helped sustain a vicious cycle of political, economic, and racial inequality that endures today.

What law did the plaintiffs challenge?

Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in 1971, but then strengthened it significantly in the wake of Watergate in 1974.3 Plaintiffs challenged many of the provisions of these 1974 amendments, along with some of the disclosure requirements enacted in the original law.

What did this have to do with Watergate?

Watergate is best remembered for the break-in at DNC offices at the now-famous hotel and subsequent cover up; but it was also a campaign finance scandal. Twenty-two individuals and 17 corporations pleaded guilty to charges related to illegal corporate contributions to President Nixon’s re-election committee and other campaigns.4 Outrage over these abuses fueled the 1974 FECA amendments.

What did the post-Watergate law do?

The law as amended had five basic features: contribution limits, spending limits, public financing, disclosure, and enforcement. FECA limited contributions from individuals to candidates, parties, and political committees—both to each entity and in aggregate; limited the total amount that candidate campaigns could spend on a given election, as well as the amount that outside groups or individuals could spend for or against a given candidate; limited the amount that wealthy candidates could spend on their own campaigns; created a two-tiered system for public funding of presidential elections; required disclosure of all federal contributions and spending above a certain threshold; and created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce the law.5

How well did the law work?

We don’t really know. FECA was challenged the day after the 1974 amendments went into effect, and was never fully in effect for even one complete election cycle.6

Who were the plaintiffs who challenged the law?

James L. Buckley was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C Circuit until his retirement in 2000, and is the brother of famous conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr.7 In 1974, Mr. Buckley was a U.S. Senator from New York who was elected in 1970 as a Conservative Party candidate.8 Interestingly, Mr. Buckley spent approximately half of what would have been his spending cap under the new FECA amendments, while his (losing) opponent spent more than one and a half times the limit.9

Senator Buckley was joined in the suit against FECA by Eugene McCarthy, who challenged Hubert Humphrey for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination on an anti-war platform, along with his 1976 presidential committee; Stewart Mott, a prominent anti-war donor who contributed more than $200,000 to McCarthy’s 1968 campaign and more than $350,000 to George McGovern’s 1972 campaign (nearly $2 million in 2015 dollars); the New York Civil Liberties Union; the Republican Party of Mississippi; the Libertarian Party and the Conservative Party of New York; two conservative advocacy organizations; a weekly newspaper called Human Events; and Republican Congressman William Steiger from Wisconsin.10

What were their main arguments?

FECA opponents argued that contribution and spending limits always and necessarily violate First Amendment free speech rights because “[l]imiting the use of money for political purposes amounts to restricting the communication itself” and because the limits allegedly discriminated against challengers in favor of incumbents.11 Further, plaintiffs argued that “[p]rivate campaign financing does not…foster inequality of political expression” because “[l]arge contributions are made on behalf of the whole spectrum of political persuasion” and that the limits would “make American politics more unresponsive and…inevitably lead to an increase in alienation and apathy.”12

Plaintiffs argued that the public financing provisions were unconstitutional because “[t]here is no public interest in relieving candidates of the need to raise money to finance their political activities” and because they discriminate against minor party candidates who would qualify for less funding.13   Although they cited disclosure as the best remedy for corruption scandals like Watergate, plaintiffs argued that FECA’s disclosure thresholds were unconstitutionally low and the provisions would have a chilling effect on speech in support of minor parties and candidates.14 Finally, the plaintiffs challenged the structure of the FEC based upon the process for appointing commissioners.15

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  • 1424 U.S. 1 (1976).
  • 2Citizens United v. Fed. Election Com’n, 588 U.S. 310 (2010).
  • 3The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (“FECA”), Pub. L. 92-225, 86 Stat. 3 (1972); The Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974, Pub. L. 93-443, 88 Stat.1263 (1975).
  • 4Brief for Appellees at 60, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976) (Nos. 75-436, 75-437), 1975 WL 171457, at 98.
  • 5See Buckley, 424. U.S. at 7. 
  • 6Brief for Appellants at 6, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976) (Nos. 75-436, 75-437), 1975 WL 173792, at 253. 
  • 7Experts ‖ Hon. James L. Buckley, The Federalist Society, http://www.fed-soc.org/experts/detail/james-l-buckley (last visited Nov. 25, 2015); The Historical Soc’y of the D.C. Circuit, Oral History Project, Honorable James L. Buckley 2 (1995), available at http://dcchs.org/JamesLBuckley/jameslbuckley_complete.pdf
  • 8Brief for Appellants at 14, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976) (Nos. 75-436, 75-437), 1975 WL 173792, at 256.
  • 9Brief for Appellees at 28-29, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976) (Nos. 75-436, 75-437), 1975 WL 171457, at 87.
  • 10Brief for Appellants at 14-25, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976) (Nos. 75-436, 75-437), 1975 WL 173792, at 256-61. Because the case was at the Supreme Court on appeal, the parties listed are technically “appellants” rather than “plaintiffs;” but we use here the term with which more readers are likely to be familiar.
  • 11Brief for Appellants at 27-29, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976) (Nos. 75-436, 75-437), 1975 WL 173792, at 262-63. 
  • 12Brief for Appellants at 28, 30, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976) (Nos. 75-436, 75-437), 1975 WL 173792, at 263. 
  • 13Id. at 32.
  • 14Id. at 34.
  • 15Id. at 35.