The Past Reforms A Look at the Laws
Campaign finance rules were dramatically overhauled in the 1970s. The first major set of reforms was signed into law in early 1972 by Richard Nixon whose reelection committee then went on to funnel illegal corporate contributions into slush funds, pay for break-ins and trade cash for favors. After the Watergate hearings, campaign laws were toughened once again.
The Federal Election Campaign Act amendments of 1974:
The public financing of presidential elections, first administered in 1976, remains controversial and widely misunderstood. The basic idea is that it's worth spending tax dollars to replace a system that encourages the unchecked solicitation of private money.
Here's how it works: Fueled by the voluntary checkoff on tax forms (now $3), the Presidential Election Campaign Fund matches up to $250 of each contribution made to eligible primary candidates. In return, the candidates must promise that they will limit spending to a certain amount and follow certain other rules. Then, in the general election season, the presidential candidates receive a lump sum in return for not accepting any further private donations.
In 1996, for example, the Clinton and Dole campaigns each received about $75 million in taxpayer money after promising not to spend more than $111 million (with a few exemptions).
The 1974 legislation also established contribution limits and rules about disclosure remain that remain in effect to this day. For instance, campaigns must name all contributors who donate more than $200 in a year.
Two major parts of the 1974 legislation were struck down by the Supreme Court. The post-Watergate amendments had also established mandatory spending limits restricting total spending for all federal races, and even limiting independent spending on behalf of federal candidates.
Those provisions were struck down in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, in which the court ruled that they violated the First Amendment. The court also struck down a provision that would have limited how much money a candidate can contribute to his or her own campaign.
But by and large, the reforms seemed to be doing what they were intended to do.
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