The insane amounts of money being spent on the upcoming U.S. presidential election might lead a lot of people to think that the country has completely deregulated campaign financing laws, but this is not the case. As usual in the U.S., the situation is much more complicated.
The Buckley Decision
The main culprit is the Supreme Court, which has made several decisions over the years that directly contradict each other. The problem stared to emerge around 40 years ago when amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974 put strict limits on contributions to, and expenditures by, politicians and parties on a federal level.
Two years after that, in Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court upheld the limits on individual contributions set by the amendment, saying the battle against corruption clearly justifies putting restrictions on donations. That law is still in effect today. However, at the same time, the court reversed the decision on limits on overall spending during a campaign, citing that it violates the First Amendment. This created a hybrid system with elements of both regulation and deregulation.
The system changed again with the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that decided Congress did not have the right to put limitations on unions, corporations, or any other groups that provide independent, uncoordinated funding. This led to the rise of super PACs, the behemoths of campaign contributions which can put candidates at an astonishing disadvantage as the system now limits individual donors to $2,700 for a federal candidate, while contributing as much as they want to a super PAC.
These conflicting rulings have created an environment where elected officials end up spending as much time raising funds as doing what they were elected to do i.e. crafting public policy. The Court could solve this situation by going all the way in either direction, either regulation or deregulation as either could work, and it would certainly be better than 40 years of trying to have it both ways.