Electoral competition is the cornerstone of democratic rule and the mechanics and processes behind elections are hotly contested in the United States, with such contestation often centring around campaign finance reform.
The issue of campaign finance has not always been as contested as it is today. The modern movement for campaign finance reform started in the late 19th and early 20th century in response to the economic changes that accompanied the rise of corporate capitalism.
It first became a core element of a party platform during an election in 1912, and since then, as the role of money in politics increased, as have the number of arguments for and against campaign finance reform.
The arguments for such reform include concerns about money influencing politicians, giving disproportionate power to companies and organisations, undermining the power of an individual’s vote and debasing the democratic system as a whole.
These arguments have historically been espoused from the Democratic side of the debate, and recently they have used this topic of debate to accentuate the notion of the Republican Party as the party of the wealthy and the elites.
Conversely, arguments against campaign finance reform are centred on retaining the right to freedom of speech which, it is argued, includes the right to donate money to a political candidate or party. This argument has typically been taken by members of the Republican Party, as they argue to stand up for individual rights and defending the constitution.
The first major piece of legislation regarding campaign finance reform was in 1971, in the form of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). FECA created limits on campaign spending and placed restrictions on the amount of money that individuals and Political Actions Committees (PACs) can contribute to candidates and parties.
It also created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to oversee and enforce campaign finance laws and ensure that contributions to and expenditures of candidates and parties in federal elections are disclosed.
In 2002, Congress also passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act which created new restrictions on the use of soft money – unregulated contributions – in election campaigns, with candidates and parties having to adhere to specific limitations regarding money raising and expenditure.
The Supreme Court has been at the heart of disputes over campaign finance reform. Its ruling on Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 held that the limits on election contributions and spending that were imposed by the FECA were unconstitutional by trespassing on First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. However, the court did uphold limits on spending in presidential campaigns and limits on contributions from individuals and PACs.
The Supreme Court also ruled on Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce to uphold restrictions on corporate speech through financial contributions to political campaigns, noting the ‘corrosive and distorting effect of corporate wealth on political elections’.
In a 2015 New York Times poll, 46% of Americans favoured ‘completely rebuilding’ the way political campaigns are funded, with 39% hoping for ‘fundamental changes’ to the system.
In 2018, over three-quarters of those polled favoured a constitutional amendment that outlawed the treatment of donations as first amendment speech, whilst 88% wanted to reduce the influence that large campaign donors have over lawmakers (Centre for Public Integrity, 2018).
The same year, 77% say there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on political campaigns (Pew, 2018).
In 2019, Gallup surveyed popular satisfaction with 22 different policy areas, with campaign finance laws coming last with 20% saying they were satisfied (Gallup, 2019).
CNN (2019) also found that 54% of Americans believe that limits on how much outside groups can spend on a candidate’s campaign would be extremely/very effective at reducing corruption in politics.
The Three Branches
All three branches of the US government have been engaged in the campaign finance debate recently.
There were two unsuccessful attempts to pass campaign finance reform legislation during President Obama’s tenure. In 2010, the Disclose Act was proposed to mandate the disclosure of all political contributions from external organisations, and the Government by the People Act in 2014 was put forward to set limits on the size of donations individuals and organisations were allowed to make and to close corporate tax loopholes.
Although these pieces of legislation failed to pass through the Republican controlled Senate, they were adapted into the For the People Act of 2019, which was passed by the Democratically controlled House of Representatives in March.
This would restructure the FEC to reduce partisan gridlock, impose stricter limitations on foreign lobbying and increase the scope of disclosure requirements of campaign contributions. However, the bill has not yet passed in the upper house and Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has said that the bill ‘was not going to go anywhere in the Senate’.
Arguably, the most significant ruling in the history of campaign finance reform was in 2010, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This ruling held that the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting the amount of money spent by corporations, and other organisations, on political communications.
In the executive branch, both President Obama and President Trump have invoked the issue of the campaign finance system to garner support among their voters.
President Obama said in 2007 that what was most important in the 2008 election is that the American people ‘elect a president with the proven ability to … stand up to special interests’. Obama also indicated in 2007 that he would support a shift to publicly financed presidential elections, thereby reducing the contributions from private individuals and organisations to all federal elections.
Donald Trump, during the Republican Primaries, argued that the ‘system is broken’ and vowed to reduce the influence of money and special interests. Trump consistently attacked his opponents for taking money from special interest groups and promised that once in office, he would remove the mechanisms through which such special interests can wield influence.
Campaign finance reform will almost certainly feature in the 2020 election campaign.
However, beyond partisan attacks, what would be a substantive way of talking about the issue?
The best bet of candidates would be to change the way in which the debate is framed. Much of the present debate is hampered by partisan argumentation, whereby Democrats accuse Republican candidates of corruption through taking large sums of money from donors, and Republicans deny and retaliate in kind.
This reduces the debate into a standard partisan shouting match wherein voters lose track of the importance of the issue.
To rectify this, candidates should exclude partisan criticism from the debate all together and focus on the inherently undemocratic nature of the current financial structure of the campaign finance system. The Brennan Centre for Justice found that the public responded more positively to messages regarding the undemocratic way in which corporations, groups and individuals can levy their wealth in a way that undermines the democratic integrity of citizens’ votes.
As such, candidates should take advantage of this aversion to a perceived undemocratic system and emphasise that element of the debate. This would draw the issue into the mainstream of political conversation and prevent the partisan back and forth that induces many voters to lose interest in the topic.
Author: Damien Brown
Damien Brown is a freelance journalist with a focus on US politics.