Why did Senator Buckley and the other challengers think the 1974 reforms were unconstitutional?
Their core argument was that the 1974 law's limits on campaign contributions and expenditures were limits on political speech. Because all political activities require the spending of money, they reasoned that "expenditures for political communication have the same stature as the communication itself." That is, spending on speech is so closely tied to speech itself that the two are constitutionally inseparable and share the same degree of protection under the First Amendment.19
They opposed public funding on the ground that there was "no public interest in relieving candidates of the need to raise money to finance their political activities." They did not oppose disclosure in principle, agreeing that it allows voters to make informed choices. But they said the FECA requirements were too broad and that the reporting threshold was set too low. And in addition to finding the FEC to be unconstitutional for violating the separation of powers, they feared that the agency's "intrusive and chilling" enforcement powers would lead to discriminatory enforcement by incumbents against challengers.20
The challengers also argued that the stated goals of the law— keeping down the cost of campaigns, reducing political inequality, and curbing the undue influence of rich donors—did not justify the extent of the reforms. They dismissed the rising costs of campaigns by saying that just two of the biggest commercial advertisers had spent more in 1972 than the total spent in all of that year's election campaigns. They also rejected the idea that inequalities of campaign communication between the rich and poor gave political advantage to the rich. And they acknowledged that the Watergate hearings had uncovered some proven and suspected instances of corruption and undue influence, but argued that disclosure requirements were the proper response to that problem.21
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard the case first, and upheld nearly the entire law by a 7-1 vote. The challengers then appealed to the Supreme Court, which voted 7-1 to strike down parts of the law.