Campaign Finance

Current Practices

related video
Richard Tisei on campaign finance.
Sen. John McCain: 'Foreign Money Is Coming into An American Political Campaign' (PBS News Hour)
Thalia Schlesinger on money and politics.
Tad Devine on campaign finance rules.

The spending and timetable restrictions on public funding of candidates do not match up well with the calendar and fundraising needs of modern presidential campaigns.  Strategically, it was better for Steve Forbes to opt out of public funding and use his personal fortune in the 2000 Republican primary. He was so wealthy that he could use his own money, instead of abiding by the limits imposed by public financing. Many politicians from both major parties opt out of public funding now, especially the popular candidates who are sure of their capacity to fundraise.  For instance, by opting out of public funding during his 2004 reelection bid, President George W. Bush raised nearly five times the limit allowed by public funding.

In 2002, Congress revised the FECA when it passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA)—a bill that had been frequently rejected since 1995.  Commonly referred to as the McCain-Feingold Bill ( it was sponsored by Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold), the BCRA prevented national political parties from raising or spending money not subject to federal regulation for any reason.  It also banned corporations from paying for campaign ads that aired within 30 days of a primary and within 60 days of a general election.

Critics inside and outside of government have challenged the constitutionality of the BCRA several times.  The Supreme Court heard the latest challenge in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010).  The basis of the challenge was whether a political documentary about Hillary Clinton—created by the non-profit group Citizens United during the 2008 presidential campaign—should be legally classified as a political ad.  The Supreme Court’s ruling struck down the BCRA provision regarding the restrictions on airing political ads. The ruling was notable for applying First Amendment rights to corporations and disagreeing with the implied belief that American voters are, at the end of the day, unintelligent, uninformed, and in need of protection from media influence.

This interpretation of the First Amendment allowed for the creation of the now-infamous super PACs (political action committees). This is a type of political action committee that is allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence an election, so long as it is not in direct coordination with a candidate. Super PACs have and will continue to play an important role in the 2012 presidential election process. 

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Oral Argument on C-SPAN (video)
The Campaign Finance Institute