Campaign Finance History-Key Pieces to Know

Updated: January 2015

We’ve compiled a few key moments and cases in history to help you understand Campaign Finance reform.

What is the Tillman Act?

The Tillmann Act, established in 1907, prohibited corporations and national banks from contributing money to Federal campaign. It was the first campaign finance legislation of its kind

What is the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA)?

Federal Election Campaign Act, established in 1974, imposed mandatory spending limits on all federal races, and limited independent spending on behalf of Federal candidates.  The Federal Elections Commissions (FEC) administers and enforces this Act. 

What is Buckley v. Valeo?

The 1976 Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited spending by individuals or groups who are not standing for election themselves but who wish to support or oppose particular candidates. The provision does not apply to contributions made by corporations or unions and rules that in any donor situation there must be no coordination or consultation with any candidate.

The court's decision effectively overruled two major parts of the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act which imposed mandatory spending limits on all federal races, and limited independent spending on behalf of federal candidates.

The court ruled that such restrictions violated an individual's First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.

This is because limits on spending "necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached."[1]

What is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002?

Also known as the McCain Feingold Act, it includes several provisions designed to end the use of nonfederal, or "soft money" (money raised outside the limits and prohibitions of federal campaign finance law) for activity affecting federal elections.  These include:

  • Prohibiting national parties from raising or spending nonfederal funds
  • Requiring state, district and local party committees to fund certain "federal election activities" with federal funds (i.e. hard money) and, in some cases, with money raised according to new limitations, prohibitions, and reporting requirements (i.e. Levin funds), or with a combination of such funds.
  • Limiting fundraising by federal and nonfederal candidates and officeholders on behalf of party committees, other candidates, and nonprofit organizations.[2]

What is McConnell v. FEC?

This decision, made in 2003 by the Supreme Court, upheld BCRA, ruling that the “soft money” ban and the regulations of political advertisements do not violate the First Amendment.  Note: This was later partially overturned by Citizens United v. FEC

What is Citizens United v. FEC?

This is a summary of the Citizens United FAQ page.

During the 2008 election, a conservative non-profit organization named "Citizens United" produced Hillary: The Movie, a documentary critical of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. Because of the political nature of the movie and the fact that Citizens United intended to purchase airtime on a video on-demand service on cable television, the movie was deemed an "electioneering communication" by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and was therefore subject to the rules governing the production of political ads, including limitations on who may fund them. Citizens United sued in federal court to overturn the decision, lost and appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held two hearings on the case and its ruling ultimately went far beyond what the plaintiffs had sought. The 5-4 decision permits corporations, unions and other special interests to spend as much as they like to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates. Laws that bar those interests from contributing directly to candidates remain in place but the ruling lifted controls on political giving that had been in place for decades.

The 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision enabled corporations and unions to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy influence and access to our elected officials, at the expense of the public interest. Further, the Citizens United decision has encouraged “corporate personhood” – the act of giving corporations the same “free speech” Constitutional protections as individuals.[3]

What is McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission?

This is a summary of the McCutcheon FAQ page.

Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama businessman, teamed with the Republican National Committee to challenge a federal law limiting him and other political donors to $123,200 in contributions to federal candidates and party committees in a single election cycle.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in April 2014 that these aggregate limits violate McCutcheon’s First Amendment right to free speech. The majority decision retained limits on donations to a single candidate, currently $5,200 ($2,600 each for a primary and general election), but said the law cannot restrict the number of candidates to whom a donor can contribute. With the overall contribution limits eliminated, an individual donor who elects to give the maximum to every presidential, House and Senate candidate and party committee could spend up to $3.6 million per election cycle. And all of that money could be solicited by a single candidate, who would have a powerful incentive to follow the donor’s wishes on legislation and other matters.[4]

Note: Hawaii does not have the type of aggregate limit that was struck down in McCutcheon.  Hawaii does have a $50,000 aggregate limit on contributions to a candidate from immediate family. However, immediate family members are not bound by the regular contribution limits and they can still give up to the regular limits to non-related candidates with no limitation on the number of candidates they can give to (i.e., no aggregate limit).

[1] BBC News, "Buckely v. Valeo." Last modified February 20, 2000. Accessed September 4, 2013.

[2] Federal Election Commission, "Campaign Finance Law Quick Reference for Reporters." Accessed September 6, 2013.

[3] Common Cause, "Frequently Asked Questions Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission." Accessed September 4, 2013.

[4] Common Cause, “McCutcheon v.FEC.” Accessed January 6, 2015.

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