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Campaign Finance Reform

1 August 2012

With the the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court ruling, parts of four decades of campaign finance regulation were ruled unconstitutional. Although the ruling did not get rid of all elements of our nation's finance regulation, mainly the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1972, it did create loopholes allowing for the circumventing of most elements of FECA and its successor, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (more commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act).

Prior to FECA, the last campaign finance regulations came before 1950 and were scattered in an array of bills. FECA focused on limiting the role of the wealthy in campaigns and established additional requirements on disclosure. At the time of passage, the bill lacked an authority to regulate, making enforcement rare.

In 1975, with a series of amendments to FECA, Congress created the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) and the possibility for publicly funded campaigns. In addition, laws were passed which limited campaign expenditures on individual, party, and Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions.

A series of court cases also affected the viability of campaign finance reform. In the first, Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court ruled that candidates can make unlimited contributions to their own campaign and spend as much as they want, as long as they do not accept public funding.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold Act) passed in 2002, was intended to tie up the loose ends of FECA and the results of Buckley v. Valeo mentioned above. The act limited campaign contributions known as soft money, or money from political parties, by limiting the size of contribution a political party can donate to a campaign. The act also instituted a ban on corporations and unions from airing issue ads mentioning a candidate for 30 days leading up to a primary, and 60 days before a general election. Furthermore, the act required candidates planning to contribute more than one million dollars of personal money to their campaign, to submit a declaration of this intent to the FEC.

All of the aforementioned provisions no longer stand. In the case of FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. (2007), the Supreme Court struck down the provision banning issue ads before primary and general elections. In Davis v. FEC (2008), the Supreme Court invalidated the declaration of intent requirement for candidates planning on contributing more than one million dollars to their own campaign. Finally, in what is being hailed as a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled, under the First Amendment, that Congress cannot limit the amount corporations and unions spend on campaigning with Citizens United v. FEC (2010). The ruling also paved the way for Super PACs to emerge by permitting certain non-profit social welfare organizations to spend money on political advertisements by targeting specific issues rather than targeting candidates directly.

Now, Democratic Senators are trying to pass the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act. In 2010, the act passed the House but was held up by a Senate filibuster. Today, the Senate is trying to pass a similar act. DISCLOSE is an attempt to enact legal regulations on campaign finance. Three goals of the DISCLOSE ACT are to prohibit contributions from foreign owned companies, to prohibit government contractors from making campaign contributions, and to require Super PACs to disclose the names of those who donate more than ten thousand dollars to a single candidate.

The act has yet to gain Republican support. Although Republican Senator John McCain supported previous campaign finance reform efforts, he believes the disclosure requirements are meant to target corporate donors while exempting union donors. “Reform is necessary, but it must be fair and just and this legislation is not. I say that from many years of experience on this issue,” said Senator McCain on the Senate Floor. At this time, it is unclear whether or not Democrats will be willing to make a compromise in order to garner Republican support.

Corey Meyer is a student at NYU, Abu Dhabi, majoring in Political Science and is a current intern at Project Vote Smart. For more information on internship opportunities with Project Vote Smart contact us at or call 1-800-VOTE-SMART. 

Related tags: blog, key-votes

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