It is understandable that the D.C. Circuit’s Wagner decision upholding the federal contractor ban would attract a good bit of attention. The federal courts are suspected of harboring animus toward the campaign finance laws and here is a major decision going the other way and on fairly broad grounds. So it has been described as having the potential to be highly significant. The decision was notable for the clarity and thoroughness of its presentation. The Court also deftly reinforces the available authority by use of case law stressing the particular dangers presented by political pressure on, or from, government employees. A strength, perhaps also a surprise, was the unanimity of the opinion.
It was also a relief to the decision’s admirers that the Court left open the question of whether federal contractors barred from contributing could make independent expenditures, or contribute to a Super PAC. So this fight is for another day. Hopes have been raised within the reform community that the Court’s emphasis on the special threats posed by federal contractors’ direct giving might justify limits on their independent spending.
This is one impression the case leaves – that without dissent, and for this class of contributors, the Court was prepared to affirm unambiguously affirm the government’s regulatory authority. But then, after a step back, Wagner also illustrates how much excitement in this day and age of declining expectations about the campaign finance reform laws can develop around a case with limited practical effect that exposes problematic features of the current regulatory regime and its defense.