Before Judging Janet Reno, Take a Look at These 'Laws'

Article excerpt

To give Attorney General Janet Reno her due, figuring out what is legal and illegal under the melange of federal campaign finance laws and their judicial interpretation is no piece of cake.

Take a concept as straightforward as a political contribution. The law says that no person can contribute more than $1,000 to a candidate for federal office in an election cycle - and nothing at all to a presidential candidate in a general election who has accepted public financing. The law even makes it clear that "contributions" include in-kind contributions - equipment, space, or transportation, for example.

Sounds simple enough. But the law isn't always what it says it is - it's what the courts say it is. And courts interpret laws not merely according to the written word, but in contemplation of constitutional constraints, legislative intent, and, occasionally, the judges' own predilections. And so it turns out that there are many ways to contribute money that are not "contributions" at all. For example, a federal candidate might consider it a great contribution to his campaign if I buy a costly full-page ad in The New York Times. If I have done this on my own, without consulting the candidate's campaign, I have made an "independent expenditure" that Congress can't prohibit because of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. Paying for the ad with a corporate check is a different story. Business corporations can't even make independent expenditures from their treasuries - a proposition once upheld by a US Supreme Court 5-to-4 vote. But if that ad removes the words of entreaty to vote for the candidate, it is probably unimpeachable "issue advocacy." In my corporate capacity, I can also appeal to all the members of my protected class (shareholders and management personnel) to contribute as much as $1,000 apiece to any corporation's separate, segregated fund, or political action committee (PAC) - which can then contribute up to $5,000 to my candidate as well as engage in other independent expenditures and issue advocacy to support a candidate. I can also contribute up to $20,000 to my candidate's political party in the expectation that the party will use the money for his or her benefit. The party has its own limit on how much it can contribute or spend in coordination with any particular candidate, but the Supreme Court recently declared that a party can spend all it wants in support of a candidate's campaign so long as it does so independently of the candidate and his or her campaign staff. …


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