Breakdown #3: Campaign Finance Reform
Hard money and soft money. PACs. “Citizens United”. Some of you might be wondering, just what the hell is up with campaign finance reform? Relax, I’m here to break it down for you.
One of the most contentious issues of this election is campaign finance reform. It is common knowledge that right now the Republicans are outraising and outspending Democrats easily. Just how is this happening, and why is it so much easier than it used to be? So let’s start at the beginning. Running a major political campaign costs millions and millions of dollars - money for staff, offices, campaign buses, advertisements on tv and radio, etc. Campaign finance refers, quite simply, to how campaigns are paid for.
There used to be very stringent rules on how a political campaign could raise and spend money. The Federal Election and Campaigning Act (FECA) was enacted in 1971 and improved dramatically on campaign finance regulations previously filled with easy loopholes. FECA instituted more stringiest disclosure requirements (politicians had to make it known where their money was coming from) for candidates, political parties, and PACs. Briefly, a PAC is a Political Action Committee, a group of people who get together to support a candidate or party. FECA was amended in 1974 and again in 1976 to comply with Buckley vs. Valeo, a court case which ruled that some of FECA’s limits were limits on free speech, and there unconstitutional. Buckley vs. Valeo ruled that contributions to political campaigns were a form of free speech under the First Amendment. Congress could no longer limit how much a candidate, a campaign committee, or an individual/organization spent on an election, but it did continue to limit contributions to congressional candidates and force reporting of such contributions.
In effect, Buckley vs. Valeo allowed for candidates to spend unlimited amounts of Hard Money. Hard money is money contributed directly to a political candidate and subject to approval and regulation by the Federal Election Committee (FEC).
Thing stayed the way they were for a generation, until the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act after the two senators who sponsored it) of 2002. The BCRA was put in place predominantly because soft money was becoming prolific in politics. Soft money is money not given directly to a candidate or his campaign but to Democratic or Republican National Committees, or PACs. Effectively, people and corporations were getting around limits placed on hard money by giving large amounts of money to PACs with their interest at heart, or the political parties themselves, and with a wink and a nudge telling them “you know what to do”. The BCRA banned soft money expenditure by political parties (even for state or local races), and further regulated hard money. It also regulated electioneering communications (issue advocacy advertisements that name a federal candidate within 30 days of a caucus or 60 days of a general election) paid for by corporations or unions. Though a court case called McConnell vs. FEC (2003) disputed the legality of the BCRA, the restrictions were upheld…
Until the court case Citizens United vs. FEC in 2010. This case, which made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court, ruled that corporate donations could not be limited, and that corporations could participate in electioneering communications. Furthermore, they were not subject to a blackout period before the election. The Supreme Court ruled that political speech is indispensable to a democracy and is no less valuable coming from a corporation than from an individual. Corporate funding of political broadcasts in candidate elections was no longer allowed to be limited and was ruled protected under the First Amendment. The case removed restrictions on expenditures from corporate profits for express advocacy of a candidate.
This is the current state of campaign finance reform. Corporations can and will deluge an election with advertisements for a candidate who holds their interests most closely at heart, with no restrictions or blackout periods. Some argue that corporations are people too and should be able to voice their opinion. Others argue that allowing businesses to flood their money and influence into an election completely distorts the election process. The decision is yours to make.
Taken almost exclusively from notes taken in Professor Judith Russell’s “Introduction to American Politics”, Columbia University, Spring 2011.
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