Super PAC Contributions, Corruption, and the Proxy War over Coordination
22 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2014 Last revised: 28 Apr 2014
Date Written: March 26, 2014
This essay, written for a Duke Journal of Constitutional law and Public Policy symposium, considers the constitutionality of limiting contributions to "Super PACs" and other groups which make independent expenditures in candidate elections. It begins by demonstrating that the same four interests which may justify limiting multi-million dollar contributions to candidates -- the anti-bribery interest, the anti-undue influence interest, the equality interest, and the public confidence interest -- apply roughly equally to the interests justifying limiting multi-million dollar contributions to Super PACs. It then demonstrates that thanks to the Supreme Court's crabbed definition of "corruption" in its Citizens United decision, contribution limits imposed on Super PACs appear unconstitutional despite the parallel interests justifying limiting contributions to candidates and outside groups. The Essay then considers whether treating Super PACs which are reliable surrogates for a candidate's campaign as "coordinated" with a candidate would be an acceptable means of limiting contributions to Super PACs (on grounds that coordinated spending counts as a contribution to a candidate).
The Essay concludes that while the doctrinal move to an expanded definition of coordination to deal with the problem of Super PACs is completely understandable, given the state of current doctrine, the effort would be unlikely to be successful. Courts would be likely to reject a broad coordination rule as infringing on the First Amendment rights of those involved with independent Super PACs. Instead, coordination is the sideshow and the fight over the meaning of corruption is the main event. Reformers must convince the Supreme Court to return to the broader definition of corruption which extends anticorruption to include not just the prevention of bribery but also the prevention of undue influence. That day may not come until the Supreme Court personnel changes, but it is the linchpin for the successful resuscitation of meaningful campaign finance regulation in the United States.
Keywords: Citizens United v. FEC, Super PACs, Buckley v. Valeo, SpeechNow v. FEC
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