Federal Election Campaign Acts Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act 85 Stat. 497 (1971)
FEDERAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN ACTS Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act 85 Stat. 497 (1971)
Federal Election Campaign Act 86 Stat. 3 (1971)
Federal Election Campaign Act 88 Stat. 1263 (1974)
The success of constitutional democracy depends upon the integrity and autonomy of the electoral process. But whether that integrity is threatened more seriously by wealthy individuals and organizations than by regulations that prevent individuals and organizations from using their resources to promote candidates and policies is a matter for debate. During the 1970s several attempts at campaign finance "reform" were enacted, resulting in an almost complete switch from private to public financing at least of the presidential general election campaigns.
Two reform statutes were enacted in 1971: the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and the Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act. The former required any committee receiving or spending more than $1,000 in a campaign for federal office to register with the federal government and publish reports of contributions and expenditures. It also prohibited contributions under names other than that of the actual donor and limited total expenditures on campaign advertising. The second statute created a fund of public money to replace private contributions in financing presidential election campaigns. By means of a "check-off" device, taxpayers would nominally designate one dollar of their annual federal income tax payment for the election campaign fund. Acceptance of these public funds precluded a party or campaign committee from accepting any private contributions.
The FECA of 1974 was an extremely comprehensive effort to regulate the "time, place, and manner" of electing federal officials. Among the provisions of the 1974 act were: maximum spending limits for presidential nominating and general election campaigns; federal matching funds for qualifying candidates in major party nominating campaigns; complete federal funding of major party candidates in the general election campaign; limits on contributions of individuals, organizations, and political action committees to campaigns for Congress and for the presidential nominations; limits on campaign spending per state in presidential nomination campaigns; and rigorous accounting and reporting requirements for campaign finance committees. In addition, the 1974 act created a six-member Federal Elections Commission to enforce the other provisions of the act; the commission was to comprise members appointed by the President, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the president pro tempore of the Senate.
The Supreme Court heard major constitutional challenges to the 1974 act even as the first campaign was being conducted under it. In buckley v. valeo (1976) the Court held unconstitutional the method of appointment of the commission (because the Constitution grants to the President alone the power to appoint federal officers) and all the spending limitations imposed other than as a condition for receiving federal matching funds. The rationale for the latter holding was that the commitment of funds in support of a candidate or cause was a form of expression protected under the first amendment.
The tendency toward public financing of electoral campaigns, with accompanying regulation, works to the advantage of incumbents and to the disadvantage of challengers, who usually need to spend more than their opponents to overcome the advantages of incumbency. The scheme for financing and regulating the presidential election campaigns serves to insulate the two major parties from challenges by third parties or independent candidates. While claiming to protect the people from the "fat cats," federal politicians have taken steps to protect themselves from the people.
Dennis J. Mahoney
Alexander, Herbert E. 1980 Financing Politics: Money, Elections and Political Reform. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.