In the News: Harvard Law School: The Non-Expert Agency: Using the SEC to Regulate Partisan Politics

Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation: The Non-Expert Agency: Using the SEC to Regulate Partisan Politics

By Bradley A. Smith and Allen Dickerson

The regulation of political speech, including the regulation of contributions and spending, is one of the most constitutionally delicate operations in which the government can engage. As the Supreme Court stated in Buckley v. Valeo, “[Political] contribution and expenditure limitations operate in an area of the most fundamental First Amendment activities. . . . [T]he First and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee ‘freedom to associate with others for the common advancement of political beliefs and ideas.’” The same is true of “compelled disclosure,” which the Court has noted “in itself[] can seriously infringe on privacy of association and belief guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Given these important First Amendment concerns, and wary of creating the actuality or appearance of partisan advantage, Congress has entrusted interpretation and enforcement of the campaign finance laws to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). This agency is unique in a number of ways. Perhaps most fundamentally, it includes six commissioners evenly divided between the two major parties. Furthermore, having been the defendant in many of the most important First Amendment lawsuits of the past 40 years, it has considerable expertise in dealing with the intricate intersection of campaign finance regulation and constitutional liberties.

Nevertheless, believing that the FEC’s bipartisan composition has frustrated a drive toward more intrusive regulation of political speech, many prominent voices on the political left have attempted to bypass the FEC in the area of campaign finance regulation. This has included calls for rulemaking or enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Most recently, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been asked to require disclosure of corporate political spending, including payments to nonprofits and industry organizations, even where those payments would not be considered material under current and traditional securities laws.

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The full paper is available for download here.