The Return of Soft Money

In the New York Times today, Adam Liptak predicts that in the wake of Citizens United, the Supreme Court will reconsider, maybe as early as this summer, the constitutionality of limits on “soft money”—unlimited contributions to political parties. The lawyer who won the Citizens United case appealed last month a lower court decision upholding the ban on soft money donations.

 Liptak explains the difficulty of keeping the soft money ban in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to give corporations essentially free reign to spend on elections:

Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, election law has relied on what many people think is an artificial distinction. The government may regulate contributions from individuals to politicians, Buckley said, but it cannot stop those same people from spending money independently to help elect those same politicians.

Why not? Contributions directly to politicians can give rise to corruption or its appearance, the court said, but independent spending is free speech. A $2,500 contribution to a politician is illegal; a $25 million independent ad campaign to elect the same politician is not.

Citizens United extended this logic to corporations. Corporate contributions to candidates are still banned, but corporations may now spend freely in candidate elections.

The distinction between contributions and spending has not been popular in the legal academy.

“Buckley is like a rotten tree,” Burt Neuborne, a law professor at New York University, wrote in 1997. “Give it a good, hard push and, like a rotten tree, Buckley will keel over. The only question is in which direction.”

The return of soft money to elections would not be a trivial matter. In the 2000 election cycle, before the McCain-Feingold bill banned the practice, soft money donations to party committees totaled over $500 million—about a sixth of the total amount spent on federal campaigns that year.

It will be interesting to see if the Roberts Court, given its track record on issues involving large bank accounts, is willing to take us back there.

PFAW