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The limitations of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 on contributions to a candidate's election campaign are generally constitutional, but limitations on election expenditures are not. Spending for political ends and contributing to political candidates both fall within the First Amendment's protection of speech and political association. But limits on political expenditures deserve closer scrutiny than restrictions on political contributions.
A provision of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) established limits on the amounts that individuals, political committees, and political parties were permitted to contribute to candidates for federal office. Another provision provides limitations on the amounts that national or state party committees were permitted to spend on congressional elections. In 1986, before the Colorado Republican Party selected a United States Senate candidate for the fall's election, that party's federal campaign committee bought radio advertisements attacking the likely Democratic candidate. The advertising campaign was developed by the state Republican Party independently and not pursuant to any understanding or coordination with a candidate. Petitioner Federal Election Commission (FEC) filed suit in the against respondent Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee. Petitioner alleged that the expenditure in question exceeded the dollar limits imposed by 441a(d)(3). The respondent argued that, while an independent expenditure coordinated with a political candidate was admittedly subject to the limitations on contributions under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, applying those same limits to the party's similar expenditures was facially in derogation of the party's constitutional rights to freedom of speech and political association. The district court ruled in favor of respondent but the court of appeals reversed and remand the case. The district court was directed upon remand to consider whether limits on respondent’s expenditures coordinated with a candidate, which petitioner sought to enforce, were unconstitutional. Upon writ of certiorari, the commission appealed the judgment of the court of appeals which affirmed the district court's finding that the limits were unconstitutional.
Were the limits on respondent’s expenditures coordinated with a candidate unconstitutional?
The court reversed the judgment. The United States Supreme Court held that, unlike truly independent expenditures, respondent’s coordinated expenditures were constitutionally restricted to minimize any attempted circumvention of contribution limits. The court held that the limits on contributions were clearly constitutional as reasonable restrictions to avoid corruption or undue influence of the political process, and the same considerations justified the party expenditure limits. Because the court ruled that rather than merely functioning to elect candidates, political reality established that parties were agents and conduits for spending on behalf of those who sought to produce obligated officeholders. Coordination expenditures of money donated to the party were thus tailor-made to undermine contribution limits. The court thus concluded that Federal Election Campaign Act provision (2 USCS 441a(d)(3)) was not facially invalid under Federal Constitution's First Amendment with respect to limits on political party's expenditures coordinated with party's congressional candidate.