In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court issued Buckley v. Valeo, 1 the seminal decision largely responsible for the current state of campaign financing. In Buckley, the Court dissected and reconstructed a 1974 set of amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act. Those amendments represented a comprehensive effort by Congress to remedy shortcomings in the system of financing campaigns which became all too apparent in the long shadow of the Watergate debacle. The Act placed strict limits on what individuals and groups could give to, and spend on behalf of, candidates and campaign committees. It also placed a ceiling on total campaign spending and imposed disclosure requirements. By the time the Supreme Court rendered its constitutional judgment on Congress' handiwork, the Act had a much different look. Contributions to candidates could be limited; individual expenditures on their behalf could not. While full disclosure of campaign contributions was permissible, Congress could not restrict political speech by capping total spending on an election.
Buckley had dramatic consequences for the financing of campaigns, and for the soundness of the electoral process generally. While some of those consequences were clearly intended, others were not. Yet the country has been struggling with those consequences ever since. The most obvious example is the precipitous spiralling upward of the expense of campaigns. The Court's surgical removal of total spending limits from the legislation made it possible for Diane Feinstein and Michael Huffington to spend $44 million in 1994 on their Senate race, and for Chuck Robb and Ollie North to spend $25 million. Similarly, the Court's rejection of the clause limiting a candidate's expenditure of personal funds allowed the wealthy Mr. Huffington to fund his entire campaign, to the tune of $29 million.
The Buckley case is perhaps the most powerful illustration of two points that lie at the heart of this book. One is the critically important role played by the courts generally, and the Supreme