History Stories


A Brief History of American Campaign Finance Reform in 7 Acts

Explore how U.S. politicians have tried to rein in the unscrupulous behavior of their fellows through seven bills enacted at the state and federal level since 1757.

1. If Ye Vote for Me, I’ll Give Ye Hard Cider

George Washington knew the value of a good house party. According to legend, he entertained potential supporters of his 1757 bid for the Virginia House of Burgesses with a banquet that featured plenty of wine, hard cider and gourmet eats. Plying the potential voters with food and drink worked, and Washington was duly elected to the House of Burgesses—which almost immediately passed an act prohibiting candidates from giving any sort of “reward” like food, drink or cash in exchange for a vote.

2. Do as I Say, Not as I Do

If a candidate successfully exploits a questionable campaign fundraising tactic, you can expect him to try to deny his opponents the right to use the same methods. That’s exactly what Theodore Roosevelt did. At a time when accepting money from businesses was considered sketchy, Roosevelt successfully raised over $2 million in campaign contributions from corporations prior to the 1904 election. The cash influx propelled Roosevelt into the White House. In response to the resulting scandal, he quickly called for legislation to ban such corporate contributions to future candidates. The legislation, called the Tillman Act, was signed into law by Roosevelt in 1907. Far from being a resounding blow for campaign ethics, however, the Tillman Act lacked any enforcement provision, which made it easy for politicians to skirt.

3. All Campaign Finance Bills Must Pass…and be Overturned on Review

In 1910, the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) was passed to require House candidates to disclose both campaign spending and the sources of all contributions. An amendment the following year required the same thing of Senate candidates and also placed limitations on spending for all congressional candidates. Henry Ford successfully wielded this law against a political rival when, in 1918, Ford lost the U.S. Senate race in Michigan to businessman Truman Newberry. Ford alleged Newberry flouted the FCPA by raising over $100,000 for his campaign—violating spending limit laws. Newberry was convicted in 1921 and appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court sided with Newberry and struck down the spending limits.

4. Congress Unwittingly Delivers a PAC-age

A flurry of legislation during the early decades of the 20th Century aimed to limit who could—and could not—contribute to campaigns. In their attempts to limit the political influence of corporations, unions and trade associations, however, legislators may unwittingly have created one of the most powerful forces in modern politics: the Political Action Committe (PAC). When Congress tried to ban labor union contributions to candidates through the Smith-Connally and Taft-Hartley Acts of the mid-1940s, the unions responded by creating PACs. Because they were not labor unions, per se, PACs could contribute cash to candidates within existing guidelines. Equally important, PACs were unfettered by the political advertising and spending laws that applied to the candidates, so they could spend as much as they wanted to independently promote specific candidates and issues among their membership and to the general public. Thus, labor unions could influence elections without ever giving a penny directly to a candidate if they chose not to. Political action committees operate much the same way today.

5. It’s All in the (Pesky) Details

After more than a century of passing laws that turned out to be too broad or too vague to survive a challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress finally made a sincere attempt to reform campaign finance laws in 1971. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) got down to the nitty-gritty in defining precisely how much money candidates could spend during their campaigns. Among its restrictions: a spending cap on television advertising in the amount of 10-cents per person who voted in the previous election, to a maximum of $50,000. As you might imagine, policing such a rule would be very difficult, especially since Congress declined to appoint a single body to enforce this law. That’s why legislators refined FECA in 1974 to create the bi-partisan Federal Election Commission (FEC)—the body that enforces campaign finance law to this day.

6. Show Me the Money!

Efforts to reform campaign finance laws in the United States invariably disappoint or enrage some people. In 1976, Sen. James Buckley (R-NY) became the latest in a long line of politicians to take his outrage all the way to the Supreme Court. He argued Federal Election Campaign Act limits on campaign spending violated free speech rights. The Supreme Court agreed, and the act was amended to allow unlimited spending by political candidates. This decision opened the floodgate of political advertising that pours through television sets from coast to coast in the run-up to a major election.

7. Let No Good Deed Go Unpunished

The latest attempt to level the financial playing field among federal candidates was the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Coming together in relative solidarity, Republicans and Democrats sought to ban non-federal contributions to campaigns, limit spending by federal candidates and also ban political issue ads from airing within 30 days of an election. This development might have been music to the ears of those Americans weary of listening to the steady stream of political advertisements that emanate from radios and televisions every four years. However, several aspects of this law were challenged less than a year after it was enacted. The U.S. Supreme Court has subsequently struck down many provisions of the act, which is why many people leave their television sets turned off during campaign season.

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