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What Is Campaign Finance Reform?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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The idea of campaign finance reform is brought up frequently in the context of American politics. Supporters of campaign finance reform believe that they are putting power back into the hands of the voters and making the American government less subject to potential corruption. Opponents suggest that excessive campaign reform may pose a risk to First Amendment rights. Whether supported or opposed, campaign reform is a major issue in the United States.

Most people are aware that running for office costs a great deal of money. However, the costs of running for office skyrocketed through the 1990s, with the 2004 Presidential election costing more than twice as much as the 1992 election. These costs represent campaign advertisements, traveling costs, and many other associated financial burdens which come with running for office, especially major offices. Even before the 1990s, running for office represented a substantial investment.

In 1971, a major victory for campaign finance reform was won when the Federal Election Campaign Act mandated that candidates tell their constituents where all that money was coming from. Except in the case of extremely rare independently wealthy candidates, most political candidates get funding from their parties, as well as supporters. Many of these supporters happen to be major corporations with large agendas. Concerns began to arise about whether or not candidates should accept large donations from companies and organizations which might be trying to influence public policy.

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In response to this concern, lobbyists for campaign finance reform successfully managed to limit hard money contributions directly to candidates. However, “soft money” donations were left intact, and unlimited. Soft money is money donated to a political party for general party activities. Some companies have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in the form of soft money, and although that money must be reported, there was no official ban on accepting it until 2002, when the McCain-Feingold bill was signed into law.

Senators McCain and Feingold were pressing for better campaign finance reform. They felt that candidates who had received major monetary contributions from big companies might be biased when it came to passing legislature which might impact these companies. As a result, they proposed a bill which banned soft money contributions to party committees, as well as “issue ads” by third party organizations in the 60 days before a general election. The bill was passed and signed into law, although President George Bush expressed reservations about campaign finance reform, concerned that it might unfairly limit some organizations.

Supporters of campaign finance reform believe that there is still additional room for adjustment. It has been suggested that extensive monetary donations are somewhat disenfranchising to voters, since the voters cannot afford the lobbying power which comes with big money. On the other hand, opponents want to balance the right to expression in the form of donations and issue advertisements. American politicians struggle to strike a balance between the two sides, with the ultimate goal of protecting the integrity of American politics.

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