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Campaign finance in the United States is the financing of electoral campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels. At the federal level, campaign finance law is enacted by Congress and enforced by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent federal agency. Although most campaign spending is privately financed, public financing is available for qualifying candidates for President of the United States during both the primaries and the general election. Eligibility requirements must be fulfilled to qualify for a government subsidy, and those that do accept government funding are usually subject to spending limits on money.
Races for non-federal offices are governed by state and local law. Over half the states allow some level of corporate and union contributions. Some states have limits on contributions from individuals that are lower than the national limits, while four states (Missouri, Oregon, Utah and Virginia) have no limits at all. This article deals primarily with campaigns for federal office.
In 2008, candidates for office, political parties, and independent groups spent a total of $5.3 billion on federal elections. The amount spent on the presidential race alone was $2.4 billion, and over $1 billion of that was spent by the campaigns of the two major candidates: Barack Obama spent $730 million in his election campaign, and John McCain spent $333 million. The total amount spent by Obama and McCain was a record at the time.
In the 2010 midterm election cycle, candidates for office, political parties, and independent groups spent a total of $3.6 billion on federal elections. The average winner of a seat in the House of Representatives spent $1.4 million on his or her campaign. The average winner of a Senate seat spent $9.8 million.
The money for campaigns for federal office comes from four broad categories of sources: (1) small individual contributors (individuals who contribute $200 or less), (2) large individual contributors (individuals who contribute more than $200), (3) political action committees, and (4) self-financing (the candidate's own money). In the 2010 Congressional races, the sources of campaign contributions broke down as follows:
|Small Individual Contributors||Large Individual Contributors||Political Action Committees||Self-Financing||Other|
Federal law restricts how much individuals and organizations may contribute to political campaigns, political parties, and other FEC-regulated organizations. Corporations and unions are barred from donating money directly to candidates or national party committees.
|To each candidate1||To national party committee2||To state, district & local party committee2||To any other political committee2||Special Limits|
|Individual may give||$2,600||$30,800[Note 1]||$10,000[Note 2]||$5,000||No limit[Note 3]|
|National Party Committee may give||$5,000||No limit||No limit||$5,000||$43,100[Note 1] to Senate candidate per campaign[Note 4]|
|State, District and Local Party Committee may give||$5,000[Note 2]||No limit||No limit||$5,000[Note 2]||No limit|
|PAC (multicandidate)[Note 5] may give||$5,000||$15,000||$5,000[Note 2]||$5,000||No limit|
|PAC (not multicandidate)[Note 5] may give||$2,500[Note 1]||$30,800[Note 1]||$10,000[Note 2]||$5,000||No limit|
|Authorized Campaign Committee may give||$2,000[Note 6]||No limit||No limit||$5,000||No limit|
One consequence of the limitation upon personal contributions from any one individual is that campaigns seek out "bundlers"—people who can gather contributions from many individuals in an organization or community and present the sum to the campaign. Campaigns often recognize these bundlers with honorary titles and, in some cases, exclusive events featuring the candidate.
Although bundling existed in various forms since the enactment of the FECA, bundling became organized in a more structured way in the 2000s, spearheaded by the "Bush Pioneers" for George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. During the 2008 campaign the six leading primary candidates (three Democratic, three Republican) had listed a total of nearly two thousand bundlers.
Lobbyists often assist congresspersons with campaign finance by arranging fundraisers, assembling PACs, and seeking donations from other clients. Many lobbyists become campaign treasurers and fundraisers for congresspersons.
Organizations other than individual campaigns also contribute to election spending. In addition to donating money to political campaigns (according to the limits described above), these organizations can spend money directly to influence elections.
Federal law allows for multiple types of Political Action Committees.
501(c)(4) organizations are defined by the IRS as "social welfare" organizations. Unlike 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, they may also participate in political campaigns and elections, as long as the organization's "primary purpose" is the promotion of social welfare and not political advocacy. 501(c)(4) organizations are not required to disclose their donors publicly. This aspect of the law has led to extensive use of 501(c)(4) organizations in raising and donating money for political activity. The NAACP, Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club, and National Rifle Association are well known examples of organizations that operate 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations that engage in political advocacy.
PACs and Super PACs are required by law to disclose all of their donors of over $200. However, 501(c)(4) organizations are only required to disclose their spending on political activity, and not information on their donors unless those donors give for the express purpose of political advocacy. The use of 501(c)(4) organizations for political advocacy has contributed to the sharp rise in outside spending that occurs without disclosure of donors. In 2006 just a bit more than 1% of political spending other than that done by political parties and campaign committees did not disclose donors, but by 2010 it had risen to 44%. And as of August 2012, two of the biggest 501(c)(4) groups (Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity) had put more money into the presidential campaign than all the super PACs combined, according to ProPublica.
Traditionally 501(c)(4) organizations have been civic leagues and other corporations operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, or local associations of employees with membership limited to a designated company or people in a particular municipality or neighborhood, and with net earnings devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.
A 527 organization or 527 group is a type of American tax-exempt organization named after "Section 527" of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code. Technically, almost all political committees, including state, local, and federal candidate committees, traditional political action committees, "Super PACs", and political parties are "527s." However, in common practice the term is usually applied only to such organizations that are not regulated under state or federal campaign finance laws because they do not "expressly advocate" for the election or defeat of a candidate or party. When operated within the law, there are no upper limits on contributions to 527s and no restrictions on who may contribute. There are no spending limits imposed on these organizations. However, they must register with the IRS, publicly disclose their donors and file periodic reports of contributions and expenditures.
Political party committees may contribute funds directly to candidates, subject to the contribution limits listed above. National and state party committees may make additional "coordinated expenditures," subject to limits, to help their nominees in general elections. National party committees may also make unlimited "independent expenditures" to support or oppose federal candidates. However, since 2002, national parties have been prohibited from accepting any funds outside the limits established for elections in the FECA.
Current campaign finance law at the federal level requires candidate committees, party committees, and PACs to file periodic reports disclosing the money they raise and spend. Federal candidate committees must identify, for example, all PACs and party committees that give them contributions, and they must provide the names, occupations, employers and addresses of all individuals who give them more than $200 in an election cycle. Additionally, they must disclose expenditures to any individual or vendor. The Federal Election Commission maintains this database and publishes the information about campaigns and donors on its web site. (Similar reporting requirements exist in many states for state and local candidates and for PACs and party committees.)
In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), instituting various campaign finance disclosure requirements for federal candidates (those running for the House, the Senate, the President and the Vice President), political parties, and political action committees. In 1974, Congress passed amendments to the FECA establishing a comprehensive system of regulation and enforcement, including public financing of presidential campaigns and the creation of a central enforcement agency, the Federal Election Commission. The new regulations included limits on campaign finance, including caps on (1) individual contributions to candidates, (2) contributions to candidates by “political committees” (commonly known as Political Action Committees, or PACs), (3) total campaign expenditures, and (4) independent expenditures by individuals and groups "relative to a clearly identified candidate."
The constitutionality of the FECA was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo (1976). In Buckley, the Court upheld the Act's limits on individual contributions, as well as the disclosure and reporting provisions and the public financing scheme. The Court held that limitations on donations to candidates were constitutional because of the compelling state interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption. However, the Court also held that caps on the amount campaigns could spend and caps on independent expenditures were an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech under the First Amendment. In addition, Buckley also held that the disclosure and reporting requirements of FECA could only apply to expenditures authorized or requested by a candidate or expenditures for communications that “expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.”
Under FECA, corporations, unions, and individuals could contribute unlimited "nonfederal money"—also known as "soft money"—to political parties for activities intended to influence state or local elections. In a series of advisory opinions between 1977 and 1995, the FEC ruled that political parties could fund "mixed-purpose" activities—including get-out-the-vote drives and generic party advertising—in part with soft money, and that parties could also use soft money to defray the costs of "legislative advocacy media advertisements," even if the ads mentioned the name of a federal candidate, so long as they did not expressly advocate the candidate's election or defeat. Furthermore, in 1996, the Supreme Court decided Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. FEC', in which the Court ruled that Congress could not restrict the total amount of "independent expenditures" made by a political party without coordination with a candidate, invalidating a FECA provision that restricted how much a political party could spend in connection with a particular candidate. As a result of these rulings, soft money effectively enabled parties and candidates to circumvent FECA's limitations on federal election contributions.
Soft money raised between 1993–2002
|Democratic Party||45.6 million||122.3 million||92.8 million||243 million||199.6 million|
|Republican Party||59.5 million||141.2 million||131.6 million||244.4 million||221.7 million|
|Total contributions||105.1 million||263.5 million||224.4 million||487.4 million||421.3 million|
In 2002, Congress further attempted to reform federal campaign financing with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. The BCRA, sometimes called the "McCain-Feingold" Act, amended the FECA in several respects. First, it prohibited national political party committees from soliciting or spending any soft money and prohibited state and local party committees from using soft money for activities that affect federal elections. Second, it prohibited the use of corporate and union treasury funds to pay for "electioneering communications"—broadcast or cable advertisements clearly identifying a federal candidate—within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. The law also included a "stand by your ad" provision requiring candidates to appear in campaign advertisements and claim responsibility for the ad (most commonly with a phrase similar to "I'm John Smith and I approve this message.")
This law was also challenged in the Supreme Court, but its core provisions were upheld by the Supreme Court in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission. However, in McConnell, the Court also interpreted the “electioneering communications” provisions of BCRA to exempt “nonprofit corporations that  were formed for the sole purpose of promoting political ideas,  did not engage in business activities, and  did not accept contributions from for-profit corporations or labor unions.” Thus, non-business, non-profit political organizations could run electioneering advertisements provided that they did not accept corporate or union donations.
Furthermore, the BCRA did not regulate "527 organizations" (named for the section of the tax code under which they operate). These nonprofit organizations are not regulated by the FEC, provided that they do not coordinate with candidates or expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a specific candidate. After the passage of the BCRA, many of the soft money-funded activities previously undertaken by political parties were taken over by various 527 groups, which funded many issue ads in the 2004 presidential election. The heavy spending of key 527 groups to attack presidential candidates brought complaints to the Federal Elections Commission of illegal coordination between the groups and rival political campaigns. (In 2006 and 2007 the FEC fined a number of organizations, including MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, for violations arising from the 2004 campaign. The FEC's rationale was that these groups had specifically advocated the election or defeat of candidates, thus making them subject to federal regulation and its limits on contributions to the organizations.)
The reach of the “electioneering communications” provisions of the BCRA was also limited in the 2007 Supreme Court ruling Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. In Wisconsin Right to Life, the Supreme Court stated that the restrictions on “electioneering communications” applied only to advertisements that “can only reasonably be viewed as advocating or opposing a candidate.” Thus, if there was any reasonable way to view an advertisement as an “issue ad,” it would be exempt from the BCRA’s restrictions.
Campaign finance law in the United States changed drastically in the wake of two 2010 judicial opinions: the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in SpeechNow.org v. FEC. According to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report, these two decisions constitute “the most fundamental changes to campaign finance law in decades.” 
Citizens United struck down, on free speech grounds, the limits on the ability of organizations that accepted corporate or union money from running electioneering communications. The Court reasoned that the restrictions permitted by Buckley were justified based on avoiding corruption or the appearance of corruption, and that this rationale did not apply to corporate donations to independent organizations. Citizens United overruled the 1990 case Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, in which the Supreme Court upheld the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, which prohibited corporations from using treasury money to support or oppose candidates in elections.
Two months later, a unanimous nine-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decided SpeechNow, which relied on Citizens United to hold that Congress could not limit donations to organizations that only made independent expenditures, that is, expenditures that were “uncoordinated” with a candidate’s campaign. These decisions led to the rise of “independent-expenditure only” PACs, commonly known as “Super PACs.” Super PACs, under Citizens United and SpeechNow, can raise unlimited funds from individual and corporate donors and use those funds for electioneering advertisements, provided that the Super PAC does not coordinate with a candidate.
On February 19, 2013, the Supreme Court said they will consider McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case challenging the limit on how much individuals can donate directly to political parties and federal candidates. On April 2, 2014, the Court ruled that aggregate limits on campaign contributions were unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
In 1986, several bills were killed in the U.S. Senate by bipartisan maneuvering which did not allow the bills to come up for a vote. The bills would impose strict controls for campaign fund raising. Later in 1988, legislative and legal setbacks on proposals designed to limiting overall campaign spending by candidates were shelved after a Republican filibuster. In addition, a constitutional amendment to override ‘’Buckley’’ failed to get off the ground.
In 1994, Senate Democrats had more bills blocked by Republicans including a bill setting spending limits and authorizing partial public financing of congressional elections. In 1996, bipartisan legislation for voluntary spending limits which rewarded those who comply, and which banned soft money, was killed by a Republican filibuster.
The Reform Party, founded by Ross Perot, made campaign finance reform a central issue in its platform, and when Perot ran for president in 1992 and 1996 he strongly argued for it. Oddly enough, most political scientists believe that campaign finance laws hindered Perot's efforts to establish the Reform Party on a permanent basis.
In 1997, the McCain-Feingold bipartisan bill sought to close soft money and TV advertising expenditures but the legislation was defeated by a Republican filibuster. Several different proposals were made in 1999 by both parties. The Campaign Integrity Act (H.R. 1867) proposed by Asa Hutchinson (R-Arkansas) put a ban on soft money and raised hard money limits. The Citizen Legislature & Political ACT (H.R. 1922) sponsored by Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA) would repeal all federal freedom ACT election contribution limits and expedite and expand disclosure. H.R. 417 Campaign Reform Act Shays-Meehan Bill, sponsored by Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Martin Meehan (D-MA), banned soft money and limited types of campaign advertising.
Campaign finance again became a major issue in the 2000 presidential election, especially with candidates John McCain and Ralph Nader. Organizations in favor of campaign finance reform included many public interest groups, such as Common Cause, Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center, and Democracy Matters. Opposition came from a coalition of organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Competitive Politics (both of which argue that campaign finance reform would harm free speech) and the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life Committee, and other organizations.
The DISCLOSE Act (S. 3628) was proposed in July 2010. The bill would have amended the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to prohibit foreign influence in Federal elections, prohibit government contractors from making expenditures with respect to such elections, and establish additional disclosure requirements with respect to spending in such elections. The bill would also have imposed new donor and contribution disclosure requirements on nearly all organizations that air political ads independently of candidates or the political parties. The legislation would require the sponsor of the ad to appear in it. Because the law already prohibits foreign contributions (2 U.S.C. 441e) and contributions by federal contractors (2 U.S.C. 441c), and requires identifying information on all ads (2 U.S.C. 441d), Republicans were suspicious of the bill – particularly after the primary Senate sponsor, Senate Chuck Schumer (D. N.Y.) stated that the legislation was intended to have a "deterrence effect" on speech. Democrats needed at least one Republican to support the measure in order to get the 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, but were unsuccessful.
At the federal level, public funding is limited to subsidies for presidential campaigns. This includes (1) a "matching" program for the first $250 of each individual contribution during the primary campaign, (2) financing the major parties' national nominating conventions, and (3) funding the major party nominees' general election campaigns.
To receive subsidies in the primary, candidates must qualify by privately raising $5000 each in at least 20 states. During the primaries, in exchange for agreeing to limit his or her spending according to a statutory formula, eligible candidates receive matching payments for the first $250 of each individual contribution (up to half of the spending limit). By refusing matching funds, candidates are free to spend as much money as they can raise privately.
From the inception of this program in 1976 through 1992, almost all candidates who could qualify accepted matching funds in the primary. In 1996 Republican Steve Forbes opted out of the program. In 2000, Forbes and George W. Bush opted out. In 2004 Bush and Democrats John Kerry and Howard Dean chose not to take matching funds in the primary. In 2008, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republicans John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul decided not to take primary matching funds. Republican Tom Tancredo and Democrats Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and John Edwards elected to take public financing.
In addition to primary matching funds, the public funding program also assists with financing the major parties' (and eligible minor parties') presidential nominating conventions and funding the major party (and eligible minor party) nominees' general election campaigns. The grants for the major parties' conventions and general election nominees are adjusted each Presidential election year to account for increases in the cost of living. In 2012, each major party is entitled to $18.2 million in public funds for their conventions, and the parties' general election nominees are eligible to receive $91.2 million in public funds. If candidates accept public funds, they agree not to raise or spend private funds or to spend more than $50,000 of their personal resources.
No major party nominee turned down government funds for the general election from 1976, when the program was launched, until Barack Obama did so in 2008. Obama again declined government funds for the 2012 campaign, as did Republican nominee Mitt Romney, setting up the only election since the program's launch in which neither major party nominee accepted federal funding.
Eligibility of minor parties for public funds is based on showing in previous elections. The only party other than the Republicans and Democrats to receive government funding in a general election was the Reform Party, which qualified for public funding in 1996 and 2000 on the basis of Ross Perot's strong showing in the 1992 and 1996 elections.
The presidential public financing system is funded by a $3 tax check-off on individual tax returns (the check off does not increase the filer's taxes, but merely directs $3 of the government's general fund to the presidential fund). The number of taxpayers who use the check off has fallen steadily since the early 1980s, until by 2006 fewer than 8 percent of taxpayers were directing money to the fund, leaving the fund chronically short of cash.
A small number of states and cities have started to use broader programs for public financing of campaigns. One method, which its supporters call Clean Money, Clean Elections, gives each candidate who chooses to participate a fixed amount of money. To qualify for this subsidy, the candidates must collect a specified number of signatures and small (usually $5) contributions. The candidates are not allowed to accept outside donations or to use their own personal money if they receive this public funding. Candidates who choose to raise money privately rather than accept the government subsidy are subject to significant administrative burdens and legal restrictions, with the result that most candidates accept the subsidy. This procedure has been in place in races for all statewide and legislative offices in Arizona and Maine since 2000, where a majority of officials were elected without spending any private contributions on their campaigns. Connecticut passed a Clean Elections law in 2005, along with the cities of Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
A 2003 study by the GAO found that "It is too soon to determine the extent to which the goals of Maine’s and Arizona’s public financing programs are being met."
In recent years, the movement for "Clean Elections" appears to have stalled. Proposition 89, a California ballot proposition in November 2006, sponsored by the California Nurses Union, that would have provided for public financing of political campaigns and strict contribution limits on corporations, was defeated. In 2008, the non-partisan California Fair Elections Act passed the legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger signed it, but the law did not take effect unless approved by voters in a referendum in 2010. In June 2010 voters soundly rejected the measure, 57% to 43%. A proposal to implement Clean Elections in Alaska was voted down by a two-to-one margin in 2008., and a pilot program in New Jersey was terminated in 2008 amid concern about its constitutionality and that the law was ineffective in accomplishing its goals. In 2010 Portland, Oregon voters used a referendum to repeal the clean elections law, originally enacted by the city council. In 2006, in Randall v. Sorrell, the Supreme Court held that large parts of Vermont's Clean Elections law were unconstitutional. In 2008, the Supreme Court's decision in Davis v. Federal Election Commission suggested that a key part of most Clean Election laws—a provision granting extra money (or "rescue funds") to participating candidates who are being outspent by non-participating candidates—is unconstitutional. In 2011, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club Freedom's Club PAC v. Bennett, the Supreme Court struck down the matching funds provision of Arizona's law on First Amendment grounds.
|Federal||Center for Responsive Politics||MapLight|
The National Institute on Money in State Politics (followthemoney.org) maintains a publicly accessible database for campaign finance information for state-level races in all 50 states dating back to 1989.
In Pennsylvania the Department of State maintains a database searchable by the public. In California the Secretary of State maintains public databases on campaign finance and lobbying activities.
|MapLight for Wisconsin and California|
|Local||MapLight for a few locations.|
Many localities have their own reporting requirements that are not listed here.