Campaign finance laws definition/advantages/History/Federal Election Commission

Campaign finance laws are laws that regulate the use and influence of money in US federal elections. According to a 2018 Congressional Research Service report, federal campaign finance laws regulate how much money individuals or organizations can donate to candidates or political parties and committees, as well as how the donated money can be used. Campaign finance laws also require candidates, committees, party committees, and political action committees (PACs) to file periodic public reports to the Federal Election Committee (FEC) disclosing the amounts of money they raise and spend. Campaign finance laws definition

Main advantages: Campaign finance laws

  • Campaign finance laws are laws that regulate the use of money in US federal elections.
  • These laws regulate how much money individuals or organizations can donate and how that money can be used.
  • Campaign finance laws are enforced by the Federal Election Commission, an independent federal regulatory agency.
  • The US Supreme Court ruled that campaign contributions are recognized as a form of speech partially protected by the First Amendment.
  • Opponents of campaign finance laws claim their strict disclosure requirements and donation limits violate rights to privacy and free speech and discourage participation in the democratic process.
  • Proponents claim the laws do not do enough to mitigate corruption and the influence of money donated by undisclosed special interest groups. Campaign finance laws definition

Campaign contributions are now recognized as a form of speech partially protected by the First Amendment.

History of Campaign Financing Laws

The undue influence of money in federal elections has been a hot topic since the union’s early days. After the Civil War, political parties and candidates relied on wealthy individuals like the Vanderbilts for financial support. In the absence of a regulated system of public service, parties also relied on financial support from government officials, sometimes through mandatory deductions from their salaries.

The first federal law dealing with campaign funding was part of an 1867 Navy Appropriations Bill which, in part, prohibited Navy officers and federal employees from soliciting contributions from Navy shipyard workers. In 1883, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 formalized civil service and extended the protections of the 1867 bill to all federal civil service employees. However, this law only increased the parties’ dependence on wealthy companies and individuals for contributions. Campaign finance laws definition

The first federal law specifically regulating campaign finance, the Tillman Act of 1907, prohibited monetary contributions or expenditures to federal candidates by nationally licensed corporations and banks .

Emphasis for the Tillman Act grew from the 1904 presidential election, when Democrats claimed that incumbent Republican President Theodore Roosevel the had received large sums of money from corporations in exchange for influencing his administration’s policies. Although Roosevelt denies the charge, a post-election investigation revealed that corporations made major contributions to the Republican campaign. In response, Roosevelt asked Congress to enact campaign finance reform. In 1906, Congress considered a bill introduced by Sen. Benjamin R. Tillman, a Democrat from South Carolina, who declared that Americans viewed their elected representatives as “instrumentalities and agents of corporations.” President Roosevelt signed the Tillman Act into law in 1907.

While the Tillman Act remains in effect today, its broad definition of “contribution or expense”, along with its weak enforcement provisions, has allowed businesses and corporations to take advantage of loopholes in the law. In the years since the enactment of the Tillman Act, campaign finance has remained a source of contention in American politics.

During the 1980s and 1990s, several campaign finance bills were killed in the US Senate after bipartisan maneuvers prevented the bills from being voted on. Today, the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971, the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 forms the basis of the federal campaign finance law. Campaign finance laws definition

Federal Election Commission

Created in 1974 through an amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is an independent Federal regulatory agency responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws in United States federal elections.

The FEC is headed by six commissioners appointed to staggered six-year terms by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. By law, no more than three Commissioners can represent the same political party, and for any official action by the Commission, at least four votes are required. This structure was created to encourage non-partisan decisions. Campaign finance laws definition

The main functions of the FEC include:

  • Enforcement of prohibitions and limitations on campaign contributions and expenditures.
  • Investigate and prosecute violations of campaign finance laws – typically reported by other candidates, political parties, watchdog groups and the public.
  • Maintain campaign finance disclosure reporting system.
  • Audit some campaigns and their organizing committees for compliance.
  • Administering the presidential public funding program for presidential candidates.

The FEC also publishes reports – filed with Congress – showing how much money each campaign raised and spent on each federal election campaign, as well as a list of all donors over $200, along with each donor’s residential address, employer, and job. title. While this data is publicly available , parties and candidate organizations are legally prohibited from using the information to solicit new individual donors.

To help prevent campaign finance violations, the FEC conducts an ongoing public education program , primarily aimed at explaining the laws to the public, candidates and their campaign committees, political parties and other political committees, such as the PACs, which regulates. Campaign finance laws definition

However, there are limitations to the effectiveness of the FEC. Even though FEC commissioners’ execution decisions rarely split evenly along partisan lines, critics have argued that it is the bipartisan structure required by Congress often tends to make it “toothless.” Critics of the FEC accused the agency of serving the political concerns of those it is intended to regulate rather than acting in the public interest – a phenomenon known as “Regulatory Capture”.

Finally, most FEC penalties for violations of campaign finance laws come long after the election in which they were committed. The time required to resolve a complaint, including time to investigate and conduct a legal review, time for defendants to respond to the complaint, and finally, when necessary, to prosecute, simply takes much longer than the comparatively brief period of even presidential politics. campaigns.

court cases

Since the 1970s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have significantly impacted the effectiveness of federal campaign finance laws.


In its 1976 decision in the case of Buckley v. Valeo , the Supreme Court ruled that several important provisions of the Federal Election Campaigns Act that impose limits on campaign contributions and expenditures were unconstitutional violations of freedom of expression. Perhaps the most impactful aspect of Buckley’s decision was how it draws a connection between campaign donations and expenditures for Free Speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Buckley v. Valeo laid the groundwork for future Supreme Court cases on campaign finance. Several decades later, the Court cited Buckley in another landmark campaign finance decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Campaign finance laws definition

Citizens United

In its landmark 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission , the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a provision of the law that prohibits companies from contributing to campaigns that use money from their general treasuries violates First Amendment freedom of speech. By granting companies the same free speech rights as private individuals, Citizens United’s decision blocks federal government law from limiting efforts by corporations, unions or associations to spend money to influence the outcome of elections. In doing so, the decision led to the creation of super PACs and, according to critics, ushered in an era in which vast sums of money could decide the outcome of elections.

In writing the Supreme Court’s 5-4 majority narrow opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that “Governments are often hostile to speech, but by our law and our tradition it seems stranger than fiction that our government this political discourse into crime”. Campaign finance laws definition

Criticizing the ruling, the four dissenting judges described the majority opinion as a “rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized the need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since their inception, and who have struggled with the distinctive corrupting potential of propaganda.” corporate election since the days of Teodoro Roosevelt. ”


On April 2, 2014, the Federal Supreme Court issued a decision in McCutcheon v. FEC that struck down a provision of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which imposed aggregate limits on the amount of money an individual can contribute during a two-year election cycle period for all federal candidates, parties, and PACs combined . By a vote of 5-4, the Court ruled that the biennial aggregate limits are unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Campaign finance laws definition

While McCutcheon’s decision overturned limits on aggregate federal campaign contributions, it did not affect limits on how much individuals can give to an individual politician’s campaign.

Most felt that the aggregate contribution cap did little to address concerns that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was intended to address and at the same time limited participation in the democratic process.

In the Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “The government can no more restrict the number of candidates or causes a donor can support than it can tell a newspaper how many candidates it can endorse.”

The four dissenting judges wrote that the ruling “… creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or a candidate’s campaign. Along with Citizens United v. FEC, today’s decision eviscerates our country’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant unable to deal with the serious problems of democratic legitimacy these laws were intended to resolve. ”

Significant Problems

Federal campaign finance law is made up of a complex set of limits, restrictions, and requirements on money and other things of value that are spent or contributed in federal elections. As with any set of these complex laws, loopholes and unintended exceptions abound. Despite the best efforts of federal lawmakers and regulators, problems with the campaign finance law remain. Campaign finance laws definition

PACs and satellite spending

Groups or individuals that are not directly affiliated with or controlled by a candidate or a candidate’s campaign, including political party committees, super PACs, interest groups , trade associations and non-profit groups are free to engage in a practice known as ” satellite spend” or “independent spend”. Under current federal campaign finance law, these seemingly unaffiliated groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities.

Spending on satellite campaigns exploded after the Supreme Court ruled that for-profit and non-profit corporations and unions cannot be banned from independent spending in elections. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, spending on satellite campaigns increased by about 125% between 2008 and 2012.

Dark Money Confidential

Because certain nonprofit organizations, such as social welfare groups, unions, and trade associations, are not required to disclose information about their donors, their campaign spending is sometimes referred to as “dark money.” Especially since Supreme Court citizen United v. FEC in 2010, dark money became a hot topic.

Critics of dark money say it lacks transparency and caters to special interest groups, further contributing to corruption in politics. Advocates of dark money campaign spending claim that, as the Supreme Court has stated, it is a protected form of free political expression and that additional donor disclosure requirements may discourage political participation. Campaign finance laws definition

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, political spending by organizations that are not required to disclose their donors totaled approximately $5.8 million in 2004. However, following the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, dark money contributions increased substantially. In 2012, for example, organizations that were not required to disclose their donors spent approximately $308.7 million on political activities.

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