- Historic Sites
The Long, Stormy Marriage Of Money And Politics
… or why in America campaign-finance reform never succeeds
November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
Nothing much was done about campaign finance between 1943 and 1971. Sporadic congressional moral spasms died in committee or were blocked by unenthusiastic Presidents, notably Lyndon Johnson, who appointed a bipartisan panel to overhaul the law and never even acknowledged its report. The big change in these years was soaring campaign costs, driven by the growing power of television. From $21 million in 1940, when radio time went for as little as $25,000 a half-hour, the tab for the TV-saturated Johnson-Goldwater campaign in 1964 rose to $60 million.
When Congress prohibited unions from giving, they formed the first PAC—an invention labor would learn to regret.
In 1968, when Hubert Humphrey fought it out with Richard Nixon, the cost hit $100 million. Single-handedly proving the impotence of the Hatch Act’s $5,000 limitation on individual gifts, the insurance magnate W. Clement Stone gave $2.2 million to a plethora of Republican committees and Nixon front organizations. The Democrats matched this flouting of the law’s intent by setting up almost fifty committees to bring in their cash.
It looked as if the politicians and their managers would continue to raise money and spend it in ever-swelling volume unto the millennium. But Democrats were deeply disturbed by Nixon’s 1968 triumph, which they attributed to his larger war chest. Echoing Thurlow Weed’s 1856 lament, Humphrey’s campaign manager, Joseph Napolitan, said that another $300,000 could have won his candidate California and the election.
Sen. Russell Long and several other leading Democrats began calling for an overhaul of campaign-finance laws and the introduction of some form of public funding—the goal, of course, was to upend the Republicans’ financial supremacy—and after years of debate and hearings, they produced the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. FECA did not contain a public-funding clause, because President Nixon violently opposed the idea, but it continued the ban on corporate and union money, and it set limits on how much a wealthy candidate could spend on his own campaign ($50,000 for a presidential race). It also paradoxically abolished the limit on how much an individual could give to someone else’s campaign or how much a committee could contribute. In an attempt to control TV costs, the lawmakers limited how much a candidate could spend on media. FECA also called for far stricter and more detailed disclosures of who was giving and how much.
There was a good deal of hopeful talk about FECA’s reducing the costs of campaigns. Instead President Nixon spent twice as much in 1972 as he had in 1968, and his challenger, George McGovern, quadrupled his party’s previous outlays. The total bill for both parties in all the races exceeded $400 million, a 33 percent jump over 1968.
Before Congress could begin to reassess FECA, the Watergate scandal generated a new opportunity for reform. The hearings not only revealed a President guilty of obstructing justice but unveiled his election team laundering money in Mexico and performing similar arabesques elsewhere to evade the new election law. Soon one out of every four constituent letters that reached Congress was a demand for campaign-finance revision.
At this point a new player entered the fray, the citizens’ advocacy group Common Cause. Using litigation, lobbying, publicity, and other forms of political pressure, these upper-middle-class liberals became a kind of Greek chorus crying for reform. In 1974 Congress responded by producing the first really comprehensive campaign-finance legislation. Described as an amendment to 1972’s FECA, it was in fact an almost total overhaul, aimed at creating an era of equality and ethical purity in American politics.
First, and seemingly most important, the lawmakers at last voted for what Theodore Roosevelt had wanted: public money for presidential-election campaigns. It would be paid by people checking off a one-dollar contribution on their tax returns (raised to three dollars in 1993), which would not increase their total bill. Meanwhile, Congress tried to rein in private political spending down the line: Senators were limited to $100,000 per primary and $150,000 per general election; representatives to $70,000. Presidential contests were confined to $10 million for a nomination and $20 million in the general election. National-party committee spending was given a ceiling of $10,000 in House elections, $20,000 in Senate ones, and $2.9 million in a presidential race. The law retained the 1971 limits on personal spending by wealthy candidates and their immediate families and tried otherwise to diminish the influence of large donors by forbidding them to give more than $25,000 per federal election. PACs were allowed $5,000 per candidate. Disclosure rules were again toughened, and to monitor this complicated process, Congress created the bipartisan Federal Election Commission.
President Ford had no sooner signed the new law than an unlikely trio—the very conservative senator James Buckley of New York, the very liberal former senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and Ira Classer, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union—called a press conference in Washington to assail it from every point of the ideological and political compass. They said the monetary limitations violated their First Amendment rights and the disclosure requirements had the makings of a police state. McCarthy compared public funding of the major parties to declaring that the United States had “two established religions.”