Campaign Finance 'Reform'

By Samples, John | The World and I, May 2002 | Go to article overview
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Campaign Finance 'Reform'

Samples, John, The World and I

Congress has recently passed extensive new restrictions on campaign finance. The proponents of these new limits--Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Connecticut) and Martin Meehan (D-Massachusetts), along with Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin)--say their law will clean up and reform American politics. The new law--dubbed Shays-Meehan--has two major provisions: a ban on "soft money" and restrictions on broadcast advertising. Far from reforming American politics, these restrictions ensure the continuation of the status quo and its powers-that-be: incumbent officeholders and the establishment media.


For most of our history, Americans have enjoyed a relatively unregulated system of campaign finance. These freedoms, like many others, began to erode in the 1960s and early 1970s as powerful groups pushed restrictions on the right to spend money on political advocacy.

In 1974, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which set tight limits on overall campaign spending, imposed ceilings on contributions, continued existing prohibitions on contributions from corporations and labor unions in federal elections, and established government funding of presidential campaigns. The law was immediately challenged as a violation of the rights of Americans.

The Supreme Court's decision in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 partially struck down FECA. The majority set forth the tight connection between freedom of speech and money:

"Virtually every means of communicating ideas in today's mass society requires the expenditure of money. The distribution of the humblest handbill or leaflet entails printing, paper, and circulation costs. Speeches and rallies generally necessitate hiring a hall and publicizing the event. The electorate's increasing dependence on television, radio, and other mass media for news and information has made these expensive modes of communication indispensable instruments of effective political speech."

Limits on political spending thus limit political speech "by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached." Any limits on political spending, the Court concluded, violated the First Amendment.

The tight link between money and speech would appear to apply to all political spending, including campaign outlays and contributions. After all, if I give money to a candidate, I'm expressing a position on politics and policy.

However, the Buckley decision did not give campaign contributions the same First Amendment protections it afforded other spending on politics. Contributions could be limited, the justices said, to advance the state's compelling interest in preventing "corruption or the appearance of corruption." With these concepts in hand, we can judge Shays-Meehan.


Hard money comprises campaign contributions regulated by the FECA. Soft money has not been regulated by federal law until now. In the late 1970s, Congress and the Federal Election Commission exempted soft money contributions to the political parties, which they could spend on voter registration, some campaign materials, and voter turnout programs. Far from a nefarious loophole in election law, soft money began life as an attempt to strengthen the parties and raise voter turnout.

Debates about soft money necessarily concern large sums that are often labeled "obscene" by those seeking new regulations. The total soft money raised in the 2000 election--$490 million--is a large sum in anyone's book. Yet absolute numbers easily mislead. Campaign spending in general, and soft money specifically, pale beside the $2.5 trillion spent by federal, state, and local governments annually. The soft money total for 2000 is less than $3 per eligible voter in the United States. Moreover, soft money accounts for only 15 percent of all money spent on campaigns.

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Campaign Finance 'Reform'


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