A little backstory first, just because it’s interesting. James Buckley, brother of William F. Buckley, Jr. had been elected Senator of New York in 1970 as a member of the Conservative Party (fun bit of trivia: he is still the last man elected from a third-party to the U.S. Senate), and he would serve in that office from 1971-1977. Buckley wanted to use his considerable personal funds to finance his re-election, but a 1974 amendment to the Federal Elections Campaign Act limited candidate expenditures from their personal funds and more importantly limited candidate expenditures on the campaign as a whole. Buckley was joined by Eugene McCarthy, a former Democratic presidential contender in challenging the new amendment.
In Buckley v. Valeo, the court issued a per curiam brief ruling (among other things) that personal expenditure on one’s campaign cannot be infringed, and that–this is the key part here–no spending cap can be put on a campaign. That ruling has stood since 1976, and it is, for better or worse, largely responsible for the pervasive influence of interest group money on politics.
While some may shout that this ruling tears apart McCain-Feingold, it is worth asking if anyone thought McCain-Feingold was working. It may have made some progress in removing soft money (one of those insidious terms nobody can define–it refers to money donated to political parties not directly affiliated with campaigns and thus outside the purview of the Federal Election Commission) from the electoral process, but it’s hard to argue that it has effectively removed the influence of money–corporate or otherwise–from politics. Until expenditure limits are put in place, politicians will remain fully dependent on donors to fund their campaigns, and the appearance of corruption will remain or increase.