Archive for the 'Buckley v. Valeo' Category

Justice Scalia and Campaign Finance: A Puzzle (Part II)

February 23, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

How did Justice Scalia come to write a dissent as he did in McIntrye, insisting on the role of disclosure and relying for the power of his point on the need to follow the judgment of legislators in protecting or enhancing the electoral process?  The question this raises is not whether Scalia was or was not a conservative on this issue, but what kind of conservative he was. As it happens, the explanation also sheds light on the recent history of campaign finance reform and the Court’s response.  The emphasis here is on “response”, for the Court—and Justice Scalia—responded to developments in the law, and in political practice, from Buckley onward, and his position may be fully understandable only within this context.

One day there may be personal papers and other accounts not available today that will fill out our understanding of Justice’s Scalia’s thinking, but in the meantime, the best sources are what he wrote and said, and most of all, what he chose to write, as Justice, in opinions, concurrences and dissents.  It has to be granted at the outset that he addressed the issue outside these opinions, and perhaps inevitably on these occasions, in interview or casual comment, he himself oversimplified.  He would say “the more speech, the better,” provided that the audience could know who was paying for it.  This would give observers reason to imagine that he was a “free speech” absolutist.

As Robert Mutch reminds us in his comprehensive history of campaign finance reform, there were such absolutists on the attack against the Watergate reforms from the very beginning. Buying the Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform 140-143 (2014). They gave disclosure some room, but they were otherwise firmly against the other elements of the law in place today, which means contribution as well as expenditure limits.  Mutch argues that they needed a fresh hand to play in this game, and it was constructed out of what he takes to be novel claims of “free speech”—to restrict the use of money in politics was tantamount to restricting speech.  They disdained any rationale for these restrictions, the corruption rationale as well as (and perhaps especially) another grounded in considerations of “equality.” They brought the case known as Buckley on this ground, and, the Court having split the difference—money was speech in some but not in all ways-- they were not happy with the outcome.

Early in his tenure on the Court, however, Justice Scalia declared that “Buckley should not be overruled, because it was entirely correct.” Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652, 683 (1990) (Scalia, J., dissenting).  He was primarily concerned to defend the “express advocacy” line that Buckley had drawn around independent expenditures, but he was satisfied that the Court had properly upheld contribution limits as measures targeted at the “plain” risk of corruption:

Certain uses of "massive wealth" in the electoral process – – whether or not the wealth is the result of "special advantages" conferred by the State – – pose a substantial risk of corruption which constitutes a compelling need for the regulation of speech. Such a risk plainly exists when the wealth is given directly to the political candidate, to be used under his direction and control.
Id. at 682.  The Justice also did not then question, nor at any time later, the value of disclosure, which the Buckley also sustained on the strength of the anti-corruption interest.  So overall, Scalia thought Buckley had gotten it right, establishing the express advocacy line which it had “set in concrete on a calm day”, Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, 551 U.S. 449, 499 (2007)(Scalia, J., concurring), while allowing for limits-- but only to address the risks of corruption, not on the basis of an “equality” rationale.

Super PACs and Concerns about Political Equality

February 12, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

This is the main point urged on the reader in this paper on Super PACs: they're unlikely to disappear, because they are product of the logic of Buckley rather than a distortion of it.  Without a major change in the constitutional law, it is difficult to see how significant limits on Super PACs can be legislated or brought about by regulatory fiat.  Moreover, the “anti-coordination” rules that many are calling for would entangle and damage political organizations other than super PACs and raise legitimate, serious free speech and association issues.

At the same time, there is room for reform--some adjustment to the regulatory process--that would account for the Super PACs’ emergence and widening impact.  Transparency measures can clearly identify for the public those single-candidate Super PACs operating with the candidate’s active support and involvement.  Additional resources could be made available to other actors--parties and others--that are now more regulated than Super PACs and, and in part for that reason, steadily losing ground to them. The goal would not be a deregulated campaign finance system but one that is more rationally structured and coherent.

Rick Hasen worries that the “cure may be worse than the disease.”  He is suspicious or concerned that this is a move to restore the soft-money days that McCain-Feingold was supposed to close out.  But the proposal is not inspired by special solicitude for parties.  Parties are one of a number of electorally active organizations that would benefit from an infusion of resources but there is no case for making them the only ones.  Targeted regulatory relief should be available for other membership-based organizations, and even to candidates when conducting particular voter mobilization activities.

What Rick and others overlook, minimize, or dispute is the role of reinvigorated associational activity in enhancing political equality--in advancing the goal of "the quality of inputs" that Rick champions.  In his very good book, Plutocrats United, Rick does not grapple with the dependence of political equality on organizing and other means of building political strength on numbers, particularly among the very population of citizens he is most concerned with: those with modest resources.  As Guy-Uriel Charles has summed up the significance of association, its “main principle…is that of effective aggregation: an individual must have a reasonable opportunity to join with like-minded others for the purpose of acquiring political power.”  Guy-Uriel E. Charles, Racial Identity, Electoral Structures, and the First Amendment Right of Association, 91 Cal. L. Rev. 1209, 1248-1249 (2003).

The Federal Election Commission has not solved the “Super PAC problem,” but then again the Commissioners cannot agree on what the problem is. Others outside the agency are divided in this same way. A number of questions in contemporary campaign finance are like that. Because positions are passionately held, each side is convinced that the other is not merely mistaken but dead wrong, maybe also ill-motivated. Given the chance, proponents and opponents of new rules would like to win however they can.

So there is the hope that the Supreme Court can be shifted by a vote toward a more favorable judgment on congressional power to control campaign finance. And proposals are made to strengthen the FEC for a more decisive role. The Brennan Center suggests that the FEC could make strides in the direction if it could be restructured to a) bring an element of nonpartisanship into the choice of Commissioners, by assuring that at least one is unaffiliated with a party and b) add an additional Commissioner to the total to get to an odd number and avoid deadlocks. The changes would supposedly work together to make good decisions: the odd number of Commissions guarantees decision, and the provision for nonpartisanship improves the chance that the decision will be a good one. To secure this ingredient of nonpartisanship, the Brennan Center suggests a “blue ribbon advisory panel” to recommend nominees for consideration by the President.

The goal of a decision is different from the goal of a good decision and so, in this respect, an odd number of Commissioners only gets us so far. And no one has yet defined how “blue ribbon” recommendations of Commissioners, or the requirement that one or more of them be unaffiliated with any political party, will achieve a particular reform objective.  “Nonpartisan” Commissioners will not be without opinions; they will hold views that inform their regulatory positions, just as there are independents who reliably identify with one party or the other.

The Van Hollen decision handed down yesterday, on a disclosure issue, is remarkable on a number of levels, none of which involve the precise issue before the court.  The United States Court Appeals for the District of Columia did narrow the disclosure required in connection with so-called “electioneering communications,” but as a practical matter, the damage done to transparency is probably of middling consequence.  As matters now stand, anyone wanting to spend substantial money to influence elections and keep much of it from detailed public view has a number of options.  The option that the appeals court ratified yesterday is just one, and probably not all that high on the list.

More important is the way the panel moved, to a new plane, the political case that critics of campaign finance reform have been building against disclosure.  The panel gave the Supreme Court a failing grade on its disclosure jurisprudence. It faulted the Justice for failing to weigh seriously the trade-offs between speech and disclosure, and it believes that it has launched them on an “ineluctable collision course.”  It also thinks the Court has compared constitutional apples and oranges. Speech is a right, and transparency is an “extra-constitutional value”: the appeals court panel evidently believes that, in locating the right constitutional balance, the Supreme has overvalued the extra-constitutional value.

The panel also strikes hard at the notion favoring regulation broad enough to block obvious cases of “circumvention”—cheating. On the issue before the Court, the FEC had concluded that a donation to an organization funding “electioneering ads” was reportable only if made for the precise purpose of paying for these communications. The plaintiff Van Hollen objected to the ease with which this rule can be evaded.  A donation can be made with no specific statement about its use; or maybe the trick is done with a “wink and a nod.”  Unless the regulators can implement a more sweeping requirement without attention to stated, demonstrated purpose, the statutes’ purpose can be “frustrated.”  The court is unimpressed: maybe so, it replies, but the likelihood that a rule will be ineffective is not enough to weaken the force of the constitutional concerns provoked by more muscular alternatives.

Disclosure and a Few Hundred Dollars of Spin

January 15, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Beware the opinion on a disclosure issue that begins with the fabled Brandeis observation that “sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”  It is meant to make all that follows relatively simple. Brandeis is powerful authority, and he was not just claiming the insight for his own, but instead assigned it universal standing: disclosure “is said” to have this cleansing effect, and it is the “best” of effects.

The Fifth Circuit propelled itself down this path in a case, Justice v. Hosemann, that the Supreme Court is being asked to take up. 771 F.3d 285 (2014).  The question is whether individuals coming together to influence a ballot initiative, but spending little more than $200, can be compelled to register and report as a political committee.  Mississippi law includes this requirement and, finding that the plaintiffs had standing to bring a facial challenge, the Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court and upheld the law as a constitutional measure to serve the voters’ “informational interest.”

The Court began with Brandeis and then moved quickly to suggest that others states have imposed even more onerous registration requirements for issues speech, set at still lower spending levels.  This seems to be a monumental non sequitur.  That a number of states have adopted constitutionally questionable laws does not settle, in their favor, the question of constitutionality, or logically make the case for Mississippi’s slightly more liberalized version.

But there is also the suggestion that in the Internet Age, the voters’ informational interest requires disclosure deep down, to the most modest spending of a few hundred dollars.  The Fifth Circuit cited in full this passage from National Organization for Women v. McKee:

In an age characterized by the rapid multiplication of media outlets and the rise of internet reporting, the “marketplace of ideas” has become flooded with a profusion of information and political messages. Citizens rely ever more on a message's source as a proxy for reliability and a barometer of political spin.
649 F.3d 34, 57 (1st Cir.2011).