The recent history of campaign finance reform at the federal level has been a tale of frustration. Members of one Congress after another promised reform but failed to adopt a major piece of legislation. In 1992, Congress did finally pass a bill, only to see President George Bush veto it. As a result, there has been no significant change in the law governing the financing of federal campaigns since 1979 (document 2.12), despite an increasingly widespread consensus that the system needs a basic overhaul.
The experience at the state level has been a different story. Since 1990, a majority of states have reformed their campaign finance laws. States have responded to many of the same pressures witnessed in national elections--rising campaign costs, underfunded challengers, the growing influence of large donors, and an increase in independent expenditures--by adopting new campaign finance regulations, including many innovative and interesting schemes. These reforms include proposals often described by federal political observers as "politically infeasible," such as strict contribution limits, spending ceilings, and public financing programs. Consequently, state campaign finance laws are increasingly cast as models for federal reform.
But these state reforms have not gone unchallenged. Many of the most innovative statutes have been taken to court, where judges, following the Supreme Court's lead in Buckley v. Valeo ( 424 U.S. 1 [ 1976]; see document 3.1), have often struck down key provisions as violating the First Amendment. These court decisions have limited the alternatives for future reform that are available to legislators and have led a number of states to adopt more comprehensive, publicly funded campaign finance systems in an effort to withstand any future judicial scrutiny. The judicial response to state legislation has also led some advocates of reform to search for new innovations, such as proposals to provide free broadcast time to candidates. These proposals have broadened the scope of the campaign finance debate and encouraged new ways of thinking about how to improve political finance.
State elections have not been immune from the financial patterns and problems that have characterized recent federal elections. Like candidates for federal office, candidates at the state and local level have seen the costs of campaigning climb dramatically since the 1970s. Total spending by candidates for statewide offices and state legislative seats grew from about $120 million in 1976 to an estimated $540 million in 1988, a 450 percent increase over twelve years. The rate of increase in the costs of state elections thus out PACed the increase that occurred in presidential and congressional campaigns during the same period.
Although much of this state spending was concentrated in the most populous states, especially in California and Texas, rapidly rising campaign costs were evident throughout the nation, including smaller states like Idaho and Rhode Island. Conse