Campaign Finance Reform Debate

History and Debate of Campaign Finance Reform

Campaign finance reform in the United States refers to an effort to change or reduce the influence of money on political campaigns. This has been a topic of some discussion since the 1800s, but the public has been more aware of the situation since reforms went into effect in the 1970s.

The Need for Reform

From the 1800s forward, politicians have been spending their own money as well as that of their supporters to influence votes. In certain periods of history, there were instances where outright bribery or buying of votes occurred. Another particularly heinous example of this was what would be called the "Pennsylvania idea" where political groups threatened corporations with legislation to encourage them to help finance campaigns. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to get behind the idea of campaign reform. He supported several bills related to campaign reform, but Congress never passed them. Finally, the government passed the Tillman Act of 1907. This act prevented corporations from making direct financial contributions. The government passed several other bills throughout the next few decades, but for the most part, politicians could circumvent these regulations.

Major Reform in the 1970s

In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act. This required nearly full disclosure of campaign finance. In 1974, the Watergate Scandal was one of the most discussed topics among the public, bringing campaign finance issues to mind. Several amendments were added to the Federal Election Campaign Act, and an enforcement industry, the Federal Election Commission, was formed.

The 1980's Through 2009

The 1980s and 90s were a quiet time for campaign reform. Most bills that congress voted on were struck down, and the ones that passed only made small amendments to existing acts. The next major change was the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold bill, in 2002. There was much controversy surrounding this bill; President Bush himself had concerns about the constitutionality of portions of this legislation. The act eliminated soft money (money donated to the party rather than a particular candidate) donations, but doubled the amount of direct donations that are allowed. Other portions of the bill related to money used for advertising. The portion of the bill that would create the most controversy was that which said corporations and unions could not promote the election of a candidate. Several Supreme Court cases have resulted from this bill, but until 2010, the bill remained intact.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 was unconstitutional. With the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court found that the act was unconstitutional because corporations' and union's rights under the First Amendment were being violated. Since this ruling, corporations and unions can now once again promote and support candidates for election. Public opinion on this case has been largely negative, with polls showing that around 80% of Americans (republicans, democrats and independents inclusive) were opposed to the ruling.

Today, there are many plans that are under consideration for future campaign reform measures. These ideas are interesting, and only time will tell if any of them get enough support from Congress to wind up going up for vote. One thing is certain; this topic will remain in the public eye for many years to come.

For Campaign Finance Reform

78% of members
View All

Against Campaign Finance Reform

22% of members
View All