The 'Mother's Milk' of Elections - from the First Democratic Election, Politicians, Journalists, and the Public Have Decried the High Cost of Campaigns
Douglass, John Jay, The World and I
The late Jesse Unruh, a California political figure, is credited with the statement that "money is the mother's milk of politics." Whether he coined the phrase or not, the quip has been repeated by almost every commentator on the subject of campaign finance in recent years. It cannot be disputed that political campaigns rely on money from filing until the election and well beyond.
From the beginning of the democratic election process, politicians, journalists, and the public have individually and collectively viewed with horror the ever-increasing cost of campaigns. Each election cycle sets a new record for spending. The critics cite the cost of presenting a candidate or issue but fail to take into consideration the increasing number of voters, distribution of constituencies, competition to spend, cost of new technologies, and inflationary pressures. Sometimes the costs are run up when campaign practices are gold-plated.
As presidential candidate Bill Bradley has said, "You can have too much money in a campaign." Many analysts believe that the money factor is a modern phenomenon, growing more wicked with each campaign, particularly since the elections of the seventies when the Watergate investigation brought to public view the amounts involved and the methods of accumulating funds. (The Watergate scandal arose not out of campaign financing but from a simple burglary.) Fund-raising is in itself costly, with a high percentage of the contributions going to administrative costs.
Washington and rum, Jackson and spoils
Money has always been a factor in American elections. In 1757, campaigning for the House of Burgesses in colonial Virginia, the future president, George Washington, provided a quart and a half of rum, wine, or beer for each voter, a not-insignificant expenditure even considering the limited suffrage of that period. With this as a starting point, one could easily forecast a billion-dollar campaign by the year 2000.
By the election of 1832, when Andrew Jackson faced Henry Clay over the issue of the Bank of the United States, the cost of campaigning had escalated. After his election, President Jackson promptly threw out the officeholders and installed his own supporters. This "spoils system" was made more ethically questionable by tapping the new officeholders for a percentage of their pay to support the campaigns. For years, those appointed were required to contribute 2-5 percent of their salaries. This practice continued at the state and local levels well into the middle of this century. The assassination of President Garfield in 1881 by a disappointed officeseeker resulted in the Pendleton Act, which instituted a merit system as part of an effort to discourage forced contributions from those in public office.
Ever conscious of the need for money, campaign managers sought more fruitful sources of funds. During President Grant's campaign, large sums were contributed by banks and railroads. Mark Hanna, the fund-raiser for President McKinley, brought corporate fund-raising to an art by setting quotas for corporations and banks in the successful campaigns of 1896 and 1900 against the Populist candidate, William Jennings Bryan. These "shakedowns" of corporations and banks were notorious enough that four states banned such contributions.
Hanna's scheme continued through the election of Theodore Roosevelt. Nonetheless, Roosevelt joined Congress in decrying this system. The public call for action resulted in the first major clampdown on contributions from business sources in the Tilman Act of 1907, named for "Pitchfork Ben" Tilman. Federal legislation banned contributions by corporations and banks to election campaigns but provided for only weak enforcement. The Tilman Act was amended by the Federal Corrupt Practices Act in 1925, following major scandals of the Harding administration involving outright sale of government favors at the highest levels.
The Federal Corrupt Practices Act provided only weak enforcement but did discourage corporate contributions. …