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DC Circuit Court of Appeals Provides Major Support For the Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Laws . . . And Probably Makes an Executive Order Mandating Contractor Disclosure of Political Spending Likely

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Ever since the US Supreme Court’s landmark rulings in Citizens United and McCutcheon, significant questions have been raised (mostly by real scholars but also by agitators and pot-stirrers such as myself) as to whether pay-to-play laws – based as they are on appearances of potential corruption and not direct bribery – are constitutional.   The DC Circuit has now weighed in to provide significant legal and factual justification for the constitutionality of laws limiting personal campaign activity in order to prevent the appearance of corruption and to promote the “merit-based administration” of our government (which is only a GRADE 3 oxymoron, falling as it does on the scale between “pretty ugly” and “jumbo shrimp”).

The case in question is Wagner v. FEC in which a number of federal contractors brought free speech and associational challenges to a federal law prohibiting their planned contributions to federal candidates and political parties.  Federal law (2 USC 441c) prohibits government contractors from making campaign contributions to candidates, political committees, or political parties. 2 USC 441b imposes similar restrictions on corporations, national banks, and labor unions.  Of most importance to those of us tasked with pay-to-play compliance is not that 2USC 441c was upheld, that law has been on the books a long time and really only impacts individuals who directly contract with the federal government (in contrast with the myriad of people who work as employees of government contractors).  The Court also did not examine the issue of whether federal contractors may give to independent expenditure groups (SuperPACs).  What is significant about Wagner is the fact that the DC Circuit appears to contravene the US Supreme Court’s analysis in McCutcheon to hold that federal and state governments may enact pay-to-play laws admittedly abridging speech and associational rights in order to assure the public believes that government servants are not corruptible and are fulfilling their public duties “effectively and fairly”, free of “improper influence or corruption”.  (Wagner, Slip Op. 12-15).

Other federal courts have not agreed with the DC Circuit’s reading of McCutcheon to allow such latitude:

Our Supreme Court has made clear that only certain contribution limits comport with the First Amendment. Since contributing money is a form of speech, preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance is the only governmental interest strong enough to justify restrictions on political speech. Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310, 357-61 (2010). More recently in McCutcheon, the Court concluded that “the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner influence over or access to elected officials or political parties . . . does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption.” Id. at 1438. In effect, it is only direct bribery—not influence—that the Court views as crossing the line into quid pro quo corruption.

New York Progress and Protection PAC v. James Walsh, 13 Civ. 6769, S.D.N.Y, April 24, 2014, Slip Op. 3.

It will be interesting to see whether the Supreme Court reads its own opinion in McCutcheon as the DC Circuit does.  Recent reversal statistics of DC Circuit cases might indicate that the DC Circuit’s reading is not a slam dunk.

One civil servant who might not be inclined to wait for additional guidance from the Supreme Court on the issue is the one who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  As we have written previously, the White House is very serious about mandating contribution and issue advocacy disclosure obligations on federal contractors.  There are many who now believe that the Wagner decision will encourage President Obama to issue a long-awaited Executive Order mandating contractor disclosure of all political spending.  Recent reports by The Brennan Center that in the 2014 cycle, the top 25 federal contractors all made disclosed contributions through their PACs and, in total, gave more than $30 million are sure to spur additional calls for mandatory contractor disclosure.