By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University
The main aim of campaign finance regulations is curtailing corruption. From the 1970s to the early 2000s, there have been several reforms in the field of campaign finance that led to the formation of various organizations and groups for participating in federal campaigns.
The Newest Model of Campaign Finance
The newest model of campaign finance is a non-profit organization. An organization organized as a 501(c) can operate as a so-called dark money group. A 501(c) group can raise and spend unlimited money. It, however, cannot coordinate with candidates or campaigns. But it does not need to disclose its donors to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
As long as the group does not coordinate with the candidates themselves, the First Amendment and the legal infrastructure that have developed around the current campaign finance laws protect the group’s right to participate in this way.
Money Spent on Campaigning
In 2016, Super PACs spent more than $1 billion in campaigning. When that is added to the total money spent by parties, 501(c) organizations, and others, it comes up to around $1.5 billion. This amount is about as much as all the federal candidates spent combined. It implies that there is much money being spent in a free-wheeling, uncoordinated, unregulated manner aiming to influence elections. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to think that outsider spending may soon replace traditional spending.
On the one hand, the various organizations are just exercising fundamental American freedom by advocating for and against political causes they care about. However, problems arise when these sources are not representative of a broader population.
One analysis showed that in the 2018 election, just half of one percent of Americans gave 71% of the campaign contributions. There is essentially a small and very resourceful group of people who are financing most of what happens during our elections.
There is some wisdom in a laissez-faire attitude about campaign spending. The problem lies in how campaign spending affects campaigns, elections, representation, and policy formation. As the population of people who fund campaigns is a smaller proportion of the overall population, public policy will move toward their interests, rather than toward the interests of the general public.
Learn more about the fundamentals of elections and voting.
Campaign Finance Regulations
Campaign finance regulations are all about curtailing corruption. Corruption happens when people entrusted with public office, and tax resources like tax dollars, make decisions that favor themselves, their friends, or some small group of people who have sought special treatment.
Plenty of government programs discriminate on the basis of financial need, age, or industry to identify some qualifying characteristic that makes them eligible for the program. However, it does mean that when public officials are making choices about how to distribute public resources, they should do so with a broader public interest in mind.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Campaign Contributions and Policymaking
A 2015 study from scholars at UC Berkeley tried to tease out the causal relationship between campaign contributions and policymaking. The study showed that senior staffers in congressional offices were more likely to take meetings from donors than from non-donors.
This, along with many other studies, show what has become the conventional wisdom among political scientists about this important question regarding corruption and campaign finance: campaign contributions may not buy actual policies or votes, but they can open doors and provide access.
This is both good news and bad news. From the standpoint of direct corruption, it is good news. It is unlikely and difficult for campaign funders to buy themselves direct policies from Congress. But from the perspective of representation—one of the key responsibilities of democratic government—the body of research shows something else.
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There are competing forces in American politics—liberalism and populism. Liberalism refers to freedoms. Americans strongly value basic civil liberties and the freedom to participate in government. These values for liberty are enshrined in America’s institutions and our history.
But, unlimited liberty comes at some cost. Where liberties are unrestrained, they tend to be unequal. Inequalities are built into the economic system that rewards certain abilities, ideas, and behaviors over others.
People come with a variety of skills, characteristics, interests, and abilities. These differences help create the present complex society. They also reinforce inequalities between people. As inequalities become pronounced, and some people have more advantages than others, populist interests arise.
Populism refers to a swelling of a large population who seek to rectify some public problem that they perceive contributes to the inability to advance. The idea of social movements, protests, demonstrations, and demanding more of the people in power is strongly rooted in democracy and populism. But liberalism and populism come into conflict because freedoms generate inequalities, and inequalities drive populist movements that often seek to restrict freedoms in order to generate greater equality.
Yet, it is worth noting that campaign finance reform tends to follow a predictable recipe. Some campaign practice develops that allows for a subset of Americans to have an unequal influence on elections and then laws are put into place to curtail that practice. Money has a way of always finding a path to candidates for office, no matter the barriers put into place.
Common Questions about Campaign Finance Regulations
The newest model of campaign finance is a non-profit organization. An organization organized as a 501(c) can operate as a so-called dark money group.
Campaign finance regulations are all about curtailing corruption.
Liberalism refers to freedoms, whereas populism refers to a swelling of a large population who seek to rectify some public problem that they perceive contributes to the inability to advance.