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Harvard Law School Professor Talks Regulatory History of Political Spending

Harvard Law School professor Laura M. Weinrib '00, who was appointed in 2021 as the Fred N. Fishman Professor of Constitutional Law, gave a lecture on political spending on Thursday.
Harvard Law School professor Laura M. Weinrib '00, who was appointed in 2021 as the Fred N. Fishman Professor of Constitutional Law, gave a lecture on political spending on Thursday. By Zadoc I.N. Gee
By Camilla J. Martinez and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Law School professor Laura M. Weinrib ’00 discussed the legal history of campaign finance regulations and its connection to economic inequality at a lecture Thursday.

Weinrib’s lecture, titled “Money, Politics, and the Constitution in the ‘Golden Age’ of Capitalism,” honored her 2021 appointment as the Fred N. Fishman Professor of Constitutional Law. In introductory remarks, Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 lauded Weinrib’s research and scholarship in the history of law.

“She is a legal historian who writes with deep insight about how social movements have transformed constitutional categories to pursue political and economic change,” Manning said.

During the lecture, Weinrib said federal court decisions that apply the First Amendment to block certain campaign finance restrictions have in part caused campaign spending in the United States to grow “out of control.”

“It’s chilling to think about the dollar tag attached to the 2022 midterm — over $17 billion — and to compare it with fights over the budget for assistance to families living in poverty,” she said. “A lot of the political spending in the United States comes from small donors, but the part that doesn’t comes disproportionately from corporations, business executives, and business advocacy groups.”

Weinrib said she is currently researching the regulation of political spending by unions in the mid-20th century — a time she called “the golden age of capitalism.” According to Weinrib, this period coincided with the peak strength of unions, whose political spending served as a “counterpoint” to corporate funding of political campaigns.

“Union spending in the United States has declined because unions in the United States have declined,” she said. “What I want to propose today is that unions’ constitutional campaign against efforts to limit their political spending is part of the reason why.”

Weinrib referred to a 1956 memo by the law department of the National Association of Manufacturers, which she said “surmised that the court’s statutory protection for union spending would apply to corporate spending as well.”

“Under the statute, it concluded what is sauce for the goose is saucer for the gander, and so despite initial reluctance to publicly enter the political fray, business groups formed their own PACs and launched their own spending campaigns,” she added.

Political spending by corporations, she said, continued to “explode” amid labor unions’ declines in “power and funds.”

In her lecture, Weinrib said this increase in political capital held by corporations is linked to increases in economic inequality.

“The dominance of corporate money in American politics is both exacerbating inequalities and undermining unions,” she said.

Efforts to address rising inequality in the U.S., Weinrib said, should focus on bolstering the power of unions.

“I believe deeply that union power is critical to reversing the rapidly rising economic inequality that plagues the United States today,” Weinrib said.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @neilhshah15.

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PoliticsHarvard Law School