McConnell v. FEC

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), which amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), the Communications Act of 1934, and other portions of the United States Code, is the most recent of nearly a century of federal enactments designed “to purge national politics of what [is] conceived to be the pernicious influence of ‘big money’ campaign contributions.” United States v. Automobile Workers, 352 U. S. 567, 572. In enacting BCRA, Congress sought to address three important developments in the years since this Court’s landmark decision in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1 (per curiam): the increased importance of “soft money,” the proliferation of “issue ads,” and the disturbing findings of a Senate investigation into campaign practices related to the 1996 federal elections.

      With regard to the first development, prior to BCRA, FECA’s disclosure requirements and source and amount limitations extended only to so-called “hard money” contributions made for the purpose of influencing an election for federal office. Political parties and candidates were able to circumvent FECA’s limitations by contributing “soft money”—money as yet unregulated under FECA—to be used for activities intended to influence state or local elections; for mixed-purpose activities such as get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drives and generic party advertising; and for legislative advocacy advertisements, even if they mentioned a federal candidate’s name, so long as the ads did not expressly advocate the candidate’s election or defeat. With regard to the second development, parties and candidates circumvented FECA by using “issue ads” that were specifically intended to affect election results, but did not contain “magic words,” such as “Vote Against Jane Doe,” which would have subjected the ads to FECA’s restrictions. Those developments were detailed in a 1998 Senate Committee Report summarizing an investigation into the 1996 federal elections, which concluded that the soft-money loophole had led to a meltdown of the campaign finance system; and discussed potential reforms, including a soft-money ban and restrictions on sham issue advocacy by nonparty groups.

      Congress enacted many of the committee’s proposals in BCRA: Title I regulates the use of soft money by political parties, officeholders, and candidates; Title II primarily prohibits corporations and unions from using general treasury funds for communications that are intended to, or have the effect of, influencing federal election outcomes; and Titles III, IV, and V set out other requirements. Eleven actions challenging BCRA’s constitutionality were filed. A three-judge District Court held some parts of BCRA unconstitutional and upheld others. The parties challenging the law are referred to here as plaintiffs, and those who intervened in support of the law are intervenor-defendants.