As many readers of this blog know, U.S. law on whether (or when) campaign donations can be proscribed by criminal anticorruption statutes is quite complicated, and to some degree unsettled. On the one hand, the Supreme Court has held that campaign contributions are constitutionally protected “speech” under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, U.S. criminal law can and does prohibit campaign donations that are the “quid” in a classic quid pro quo bribery transaction. In other words, it would unconstitutional for the U.S. to prohibit campaign donations to politicians even if such a prohibition is motivated by the generalized worry that politicians might show special solicitude to the interests of their big donors. But it is perfectly constitutional for Congress to prohibit quid pro quo transactions in which a private interest offers a campaign donation as the “quid” in exchange for some “quo.”
It remains an open question, however, what can qualify as the “quo.” Certainly passing legislation, directing federal funding, and securing special regulatory benefits and exceptions would suffice. But what about mere access — an understanding between the donor and elected official that a campaign contribution will get the donor special access to the official? Two recent Supreme Court opinions — Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC — contain language suggesting that it might be unconstitutional for U.S. law to prohibit an explicit quid pro quo agreement in which a politician offers access in exchange for campaign contributions. According to Citizens United, “[i]ngratiation and access . . . are not corruption,” while McCutcheon cautioned that “government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies or the political access such support may afford” (emphasis added).
Despite this suggestive language, the Supreme Court has not yet had to confront head-on the question of whether the First Amendment protects quid pro quo payment-for-access. The closest it came was last year in United States v. McDonnell (discussed on the blog here, here, and here). In that case, Governor McDonnell helped to arrange meetings between businessman Jonnie Williams and government officials, and accepted personal gifts from Mr. Williams in exchange. By a vote of 7-0, the McDonnell Court reversed the governor’s conviction and construed the federal bribery statute at issue not to cover the governor’s conduct.
But this doesn’t resolve the constitutional question. McDonnell turned on the construction of the existing federal anti-bribery statute, which requires that the “quo” be an “official act,” which the Court construed narrowly as excluding provision of mere access. Moreover, McDonnell was not a First Amendment case, as the alleged bribes were not campaign contributions. Nonetheless, the Court did discuss the concept of corruption in a manner reminiscent of its opinions in Citizens United and McCutcheon. According to McDonnell: “[C]onscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. . . . The Government’s position [that McDonnell violated the law] could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships if [a donor] had given a campaign contribution in the past . . . . Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse.” Furthermore, McCutcheon — which was a First Amendment case — defined the sort of corruption that could justify restrictions on campaign donations as “a direct exchange of an official act for money” (emphasis added), which might imply that, at least in the campaign donation context, McDonnell’s reading of the anti-bribery statute is constitutionally required.
But is that right? Separate from the question of whether Congress should criminalize payment-for-access, and from the question of whether Congress has in fact done so in the existing federal anti-bribery statutes, is the question of whether Congress could criminally proscribe payment-for-access if it wanted to. In other words, is payment-for-access constitutionally protected? Though some of the Supreme Court’s recent language has suggested such a conclusion, I believe that proposition is wrong, for three reasons: