Since the beginning of American independence, money has played a fundamental role in this country’s elections. During the first U. S. elections, candidates who ran for public office were of social and economic prominence and typically paid for campaign expenses themselves or from contributions by friends and family (Corrado et al. , 2005). As the political process matured and the party system strengthened, candidates who lacked financial means began to run for public office.
To finance these candidates, the party organizations developed the “spoils system” to fund their political activities (Corrado et al. , 2005). Under the “spoils system” the winning candidates would appoint party loyalists to government positions. Appointees were then expected to contribute a percentage of their government salary to the party. The “spoils system” provided a continuous flow of money to the parties and is the first known example of Congress attempting to regulate the role of money in politics.
Campaign Funding and BCRA Political campaigns have become more than just advocating one’s position on the issues; they have become a true test of a candidate’s viability through his or her ability to raise large sums of money (Donnelly, Fine, & Miller, 1999). However, a candidate’s forced reliance on
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This undermines a democratic system that ensures all citizens equal influence in the political discourse (Donnelly, et al. , 1999). To combat this problem, state and federal legislation has been passed in response to the public’s perception that current campaign practices are corrupt. The one unifying principle of reform is that public awareness remains the strongest motivation for Congress and the States to enact meaningful campaign finance reform (Gross & Goidel, 2003).
Although campaign finance reform bills have been passed by Congress and the States to maintain and/or restore the American public’s faith in the electoral process, has Congress done enough to ensure continued credibility of federally-elected officials? Or, should current federal legislation be influenced by campaign finance reform measures that some states have enacted? The role of money and its potential influence over the political process has long been viewed as creating a system that is not equal and fair for all.
In an attempt to level the playing field and reduce influence peddling in a system that allows a small minority to have so much influence through political contributions, the U. S. Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). The BCRA aims to limit the role of money in politics by dramatically changing the rules of campaign fundraising for federal elections. Supporters of the BCRA believe that, if one limits the overall amount that an individual or group can contribute to a national party or candidate, one reduces potential influence-pedaling through money.
Although the major provisions of the BCRA place restrictions on electioneering communications by corporations and unions, and a prohibition on soft money contributions to the national parties, the 2006 federal election cycle shows that money still plays an enormous role in elections. According to the Federal Elections Commission ([FEC], 2006), as of mid-October in the 2006 election cycle, candidates for the United States House and Senate had spent a combined total of $1. 367 billion on their election campaigns.
For the vast majority of candidates, these monies were raised by contributions from individuals and Political Action Committees (PACs). Most contributions come from individuals and PACs that have a special interest in the decisions made by government and therefore contributions are directed to candidates that serve on Congressional subcommittees that deal with those interests (Donelly et al. , 1999). This correlation leads many in the media and the public-at-large to believe that the wealthy have a disproportionate amount of influence in the political process and that campaign contributions can have a corruptive effect on elected officials.
Additionally, a loophole in the BCRA still allows for large, private donations to play a role in campaigns. Contributions and Legislative Voting Stacey Gordon, in his book Campaign Contributions and Legislative Voting, summarizes the four leading relationships that are primarily believed to exist by the political science community because of contributions from PACs and wealthy individuals who contribute the allowable maximum each campaign cycle.
According to Gordon (2005), although contributions are not a coordinated attempt to specifically buy a vote, they do seek to achieve the following: first, contributions are given to candidates who hold similar views as the giver in an attempt to get like-minded individuals into elected office; second, contributions are given to gain access to the elected officials; third, contributions encourage a legislator to be involved in legislation important to the giver and; fourth, contributions in and of themselves have an impact on the voting decisions.
If one only looks at votes cast by a given legislator, one misses the more subtle relationship that exists between campaign contributors and elected officials (Gordon, 2005). Campaign contributors don’t require candidates to sign contracts that they will vote a certain way if elected in order to receive a contribution – that would be illegal – but contributors do seek out candidates that share their views on a variety of issues such as social, political, financial, and environmental.
Contributors do not contribute to candidates who hold diametrically opposed views from those of their own because the contribution would help promote a candidate that once elected, would not help promote the causes and issues important to the contributor. The contributor is going to give their money to a candidate who holds similar views in order to have those views represented by the candidate once elected. If the candidate that received the contribution is elected, then the individuals or groups that supported the campaign now have an elected official who shares many of their views on a wide range of issues.
Individuals and groups seeking to advance legislation important to them know that having like-minded people hold elected office allows them to impart views and information on important issues much easier than having elected officials who do not share their views. Contributions are gifts of money to candidates, and, like most gifts, they are given for the purpose of further developing or maintaining a relationship; the recipient of a gift generally feels obligated to one day return the favor (Clawson, Neustadtl, & Weller, 1998).
Contributions to candidates, especially by PACs (because of the large contribution amounts allowable by law), are considered investments by the giver with the intent of gaining access to the candidate once elected. Elected officials need to raise money for their reelection, so if they hope to receive repeat contributions, they know that they must allow access to the giver in order to hear their views on an issue. Although access does not necessarily equal a vote one way or another, it does provide an opportunity for influence that many others do not have because of the individual in person meetings afforded to large givers (Gordon, 2005).
Access is a valuable commodity because it offers groups the opportunity to influence legislative decisions through the guise of offering policy-relevant information (Austin-Smith, 1995). The groups providing the policy have an agenda and, therefore, are most likely providing biased policy-relevant information that is meant to frame information in favor of the group providing it. The groups that have access clearly have an advantage in persuading legislative thinking on an issue verses those that do not.
For example, if a lawmaker has a relationship with a key informant who works for a group that has legislation before that lawmakers committee, that key informant is more likely to be invited to testify as an expert witness on legislation before the committee, which gives the informant the opportunity to influence legislation. Although legislators and large campaign contributors do not have a formal market driven system of votes for contributions, contributions do have an impact on voting decisions (Gordon, 2005). Votes in and of themselves are not for sale.
Most elected officials hold themselves in high moral regard and would never sell a vote for a campaign contribution and most contributors would never offer a contribution in exchange for a vote due to the illegality of such a request. The corollary relationship between contributions and votes is due to more nuanced factors such as those mentioned above. Contributions to like minded candidates, the access gained from those contributions, and the relationships that are built from the access are the combination of nuances that lead to money equaling votes.
If you take away the money, you take away the access, which removes the relationships intended to influence. As mentioned above, it is very difficult to prove a legislator voted a certain way because of a specific contribution. However, research and studies have been conducted that examine contributions from special interest groups and voting records legislators and timing of contributions and their affect on votes. The nonprofit advocacy group Common Cause recently looked at contributions by the cable industry to Congress and the subsequent legislation, or lack thereof, that resulted.
Gerald Lubenow, in his book, A User’s Guide to Campaign Finance Reform, provides a series of edited essays that argue that campaign finance reform may not be needed if the goal of reform is to solve the supposed problem of corruption; corruption being the use of a campaign contribution to influence legislation. If politics is corrupt and, if the corruption is caused by money, then one can conclude that reducing money in politics will allow politicians to ignore the special interests that give money and focus on the public interest (Lubenow, 2001).
However, Lubenow (2001) argues that campaign contributions over the last 20 years have dramatically increased. The authors conducted an analysis of campaign contributions compared to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and found that the total value of favors sold relative to national income may have actually dropped. This is not to say that there is no corruption at all in Congress, but that corruption has not kept up with the vast increase in contributions, thus suggesting that campaign contributions do not play a major role in corruption.
In Financing the 2004 Election (Corrado, Magleby, Patterson, (Eds. ), 2006), Thomas Mann highlights a number of lessons that can be learned from the enactment of the BCRA. Mann (2006) argues that many thought the two national parties would be weakened by the BCRA, due to restrictions on soft money, and that donors would redirect their contributions to outside groups, such as 527s, during the 2004 election cycle. According to Mann (2006), this did not happen and both national parties were able to raise more hard money than they had prior to the enactment of the BCRA.
The parties compensated for the loss of soft money by further cultivating large, and more importantly, small donors by focusing efforts on direct mail and Internet contributions (Mann, 2006). Mann (2006) credits the focus on cultivating fundraising efforts with increased voter identification and get-out-the-vote efforts as one of the consequences of the BCRA. Mann (2006) highlights the increased emergence of 527 groups since the enactment of BCRA and takes the following view:
The new 527 organization in 2004 neither matched the party soft money receipts and expenditures or recent elections nor relied on diverted party soft money donations. These groups made up less than half of the party soft money that was eliminated by BCRA. Moreover, their donors had a very different profile. Virtually all of the corporate party soft money donors retained these freed-up funds, choosing not to contribute them to other groups.
Unions shifted some of their soft money contributions to Democratic-leaning 527s, those contributing six-, seven-, and eight-digit amounts, had previously contributed to party soft money accounts, their 527 donations in 2004 dwarfed their earlier gifts to the parties (p. 246). Mann provides important analysis which shows that, even with the emergence of many 527 groups post-BCRA, corporate money and, to some extent, even union money, was reduced during the 2004 election cycle. According to Mann (2006), the BCRA has achieved its goal of restricting the amount of money that was contributed and spent by corporations and unions.
Critics of the BCRA argue that the law does not go far enough in restricting the role of money in federal elections. Many point to a major loophole in the legislation that allows for large amounts of money to play a role in campaigns contributed by 527s, which do not fall under the rules and restrictions of the BCRA. These groups are able to spend unlimited amounts of money on what are called “issue ads”, which expressly support or oppose an issue, as long as the group does so without coordination or consultation with any candidate (Saxl & Maloney, 2004).
Congress also realizes that there are unintended loopholes in the BCRA. In 2006, Joseph Cantor wrote an issue brief for the Congressional Research Service (CRS), specifically citing 527s as a force undermining the BCRA. Cantor (2006) cites 527s as “loopholes through which electoral influence is sought by spending money in ways that detract from public confidence in the system and that are beyond the scope intended by Congress” (p. 4).
Although it is illegal for 527s to coordinate with candidates and campaigns on their expenditures to promote an issue, Cantor (2006) highlights that these groups’ ability to spend unlimited amounts of money on promoting issues that may affect a candidate put that candidate at a distinct disadvantage, since he or she is subject to strict fundraising rules under the BCRA and may have the financial resources to be able to respond to charges made by these groups. Conclusion The BCRA is not a comprehensive enough solution to combat the issues of money and influence.
Although the BCRA stopped large soft money contributions to the two major political parties, it increased the amount that candidates can receive in the form of individual contributions, placed no additional regulations on 527 groups, and continues to allow corporate PACs to play a significant role in the overall financing of candidates. Until Congress passes comprehensive campaign finance reform, patchwork solutions such as the BCRA will continue to fail, because money has always found its way into the political process. What is the solution?
Public funding of elections is a successful solution to the current campaign crisis we currently face at the federal level. It has proven to be a model that achieves the fundamental goal of the BCRA — reducing the influence of special interest in politics. Although critics would charge that public financing will never work on a national level due to the cost, we need to ask ourselves what the real cost is to all Americans if we continue to allow a minority of wealthy individuals and corporate interest disproportionately influence federal legislation and shape American public policy.
By enacting clean elections at the federal level, the inherent shortcomings of the BCRA can be resolved, while ensuring that the one-person, one-vote concept inherent in our democracy is preserved. References Austin-Smith, D. (1995). Campaign Contributions and Access. The American Political Science Review, 89(3), 566-581. Cantor, J. E. (2006). Campaign Finance. Washington, DC: U. S. Congressional Research Service – The Library of Congress. Corrado, A. , Mann, T. E. , Ortiz, D. R. , & Potter, T. (2005). The New Campaign Finance Sourcebook. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.
Clawson, D. , Neustadtl, A. , & Seller, M. (1998). Dollars and Votes: How Business Campaign Contributions Subvert Democracy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Donelly, Fine, & Miller. (1999). Money and Politics: Financing Our Elections Democratically. Boston: Beacon Press Federal Election Commission (2000). Campaign Finance Law Quick Reference for Reporters. Federal Election Commission. Retrieved March 2009, from http://www. fec. gov/press/bkgnd/bcra_overview. shtml Gordon, Stacy B. (2005). Campaign Contributions and Legislative Voting: A New Approach.
New York: Routledge Gross, D. A. , & Goidel, R. K. (2003). The State Of Campaign Finance Reform. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. Lubenow, G. C. , (Eds. ). (2001). A User’s Guide to Campaign Finance Reform. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC. Magleby, D. , Corrado, A. , & Patterson, K. , (Eds. ). (2006). Financing the 2004 Election. Washington: Brookings Institution Press. Saxl, & Maloney. (2004). The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act: Unintended Consequences and the Maine Solution. 41 Harvard Law Jour Legis, 465.