Politics

Levy Lecture: Dark money casts shadow over American politics

Julie Strauss, a local lecturer on the three branches of American politics and subcategories related to each, presented a virtual Levy Lecture on April 12 titled “Dark Money: The Money Behind Our Politics.” The focus of her lecture was the history of campaign finance laws and how they’ve evolved in our political system, as well as the consequences of these laws.

Julie Strauss (Provided photo)

Strauss’ academic background is in social sciences (Wesleyan University) and she has a doctorate in American history from Northwestern University. She began with a sentiment, attributed to Justice Louis Brandeis, a member of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939 and the court’s first Jewish justice. He said, Strauss related, “We could either have a democratic society, or we can have the concentration of great wealth in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.”

In less than 100 years, Brandeis’ prescient observation may well be on its way to becoming prophecy. In the past decade, the 10 most generous donors and their spouses – 20 people – have given at least $1.2 billion to federal elections, according to Strauss.

It wasn’t always this way. Post-Watergate, Congress passed a campaign finance legislation in 1971 – later amended in 1974 – called the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). The law did three things: It specified how much money an individual, a political party or a political action committee could donate to a campaign; it specified how much money a candidate could donate to his or her own campaign; and it established the Federal Election Commission “in an attempt to try and regulate the money in the system,” Strauss said.

The intent of the campaign finance legislation was to reduce the influence of individuals with a capacity to donate large sums. But those who disagreed with the limits pushed back, and within a year an appeal was filed with the Supreme Court.

In January 1976, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Buckley v. Valeo that overturned certain key provisions of FECA. The ruling determined it was unconstitutional and a violation of a candidate’s First Amendment rights to limit the dollar amount of contributions (so-called hard money) one could donate to oneself. It also removed the $1,000 limit for independent expenditures (“soft money”), provided that supporters of a candidate take actions independent of the candidate’s campaign.

Hard money donations, both names and amounts, are made public. Soft money donations are vague, and donors’ names are not publicized.

Buckley v. Valeo legitimized the concept that giving money to a political campaign was a form of protected free speech. Ultimately it also paved the way for the Citizens United case decided in 2009, which opened the floodgates to anonymous and unlimited political contributions.

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