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
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