Campaign Finance Reform: A Sourcebook

By Anthony Corrado; Thomas E. Mann et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
MONEY AND POLITICS A History of Federal Campaign Finance Law

INTRODUCTION BY ANTHONY CORRADO

Controversy over the role of money in politics did not begin with Watergate. Nor did it start with the clamor over the high costs of campaigning that accompanied the growth of radio and television broadcasting in the postwar era. Money's influence on the political process has long been a concern, an outgrowth of our nation's continuing struggle to reconcile basic notions of political equality, such as the principle of "one person, one vote," with the unequal distribution of economic resources and the willingness of a relatively small group of citizens to participate financially in political campaigns. Though public criticism of the campaign finance system has been particularly acute in recent decades, the criticisms raised, and the consequent demand for campaign finance reform, can be traced back to almost every election since at least the Civil War.

The first major thrust for campaign finance legislation at the national level came during the progressive era as a result of a movement to eliminate the influence of big business in federal elections. By the end of the nineteenth century, lavish contributions by major corporations and wealthy "fat cat" donors had reached levels that alarmed progressive reformers. Money from corporations, banks, railroads, and other businesses had become a major source of political funds, and numerous corporations were reportedly making donations to national party committees in amounts of $50,000 or more to "represent their share in the nation's prosperity." In the elections of 1896 and 1900, Mark Hanna relied on such corporate largesse to raise millions of dollars for William McKinley's presidential campaigns, most of which came from businesses or wealthy individuals with interests in government policy. Muckraking journalists and progressive politicians charged that these wealthy donors were corrupting government processes and gaining special favors and privileges as a result of their campaign gifts. They demanded regulation to prevent such abuses. Their calls went unheeded until the controversy surrounding the financing of the 1904 election led to the first organized movement for campaign finance reform.

In 1904, Judge Alton B. Parker, the Democratic presidential nominee, alleged that corporations were providing President Theodore Roosevelt with campaign gifts to buy influence with the administration. Roosevelt denied the charge; but in investigations conducted after the election, several major companies admitted making large contributions to the Republican campaign. The controversy led Roosevelt to include a call for campaign finance reform in his annual messages to Congress in 1905 and 1906. This spurred the formation of the National Publicity Law Organization ( NPLO), a citizens' group dedicated to lobbying for the regulation of political finance and public disclosure of political spending.

Faced with increasing public sentiment in favor of reform, Congress finally acted in 1907. At the urging of Benjamin "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, it took up a bill that had been introduced in an earlier Congress to restrict corporate giving in federal elections. The law, known as the Tillman Act, prohibited any contributions by corporations and national

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