TBT: McCain-Feingold

Posted by Blake Wright on July 31, 2014 at 1:19 PM


By Alyssa Berg
Fundraising has long played an important role in propelling the campaigns of strong candidates for public office toward electoral success. Elements like literature distribution, phone calls to voters, and travel to events are all necessary to familiarize the electorate with the candidate’s issues and image. But personally footing the bill for a multi-month or even multi-year campaign is beyond the means of most interested in public service. In the last few decades especially, the United States has seen a steep and steady increase in the financial means necessary to execute a successful campaign, as well as a few narrow-margin victories that have left a bitter taste in the mouths of those advocating for truly free and fair elections.

One such event sparked nationwide outcry in 2000, when Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore’s narrow lead in the popular vote was overridden by a Supreme Court Order ending ballot recounts across the country and declaring President George W. Bush the electoral victor. This outcome came on the heels of expensive and cutthroat campaigns by both parties, which raised questions from leaders on both sides of the aisle about the necessity of campaign finance reform in order to ensure honest and fair outcomes in races at all levels.

The concept was not new to the political landscape, but previous efforts to bring campaign finance reform to the table had led to finger-pointing and blame-shifting as both sides attempted to polarize the issue and distance themselves from allegations of corruption. But in 2002, Senators Russell Feingold and John McCain, a Democrat and Republican respectively, committed to bridging the partisan divide and tackling campaign finance reform honestly and with cross-party collaboration.

Their reform efforts had two primary goals: first, to stem the increasing flow of unregulated “soft money” through campaigns at all levels, and second, to hold the creators of political advertisements, whether they be candidates or independent organizations, accountable for their content. Provisions of the final bill addressed both of these issue and several others with measures including federally mandated contribution limits for donors, requisite public reporting to the Federal Election Commission of any and all donations, mandatory statements verifying the origin of all political radio and television advertisements, and limits on playing such media within a certain timeframe around elections. The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act passed a Republican House and a Democratic Senate with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush on March 27, 2002.

Some provisions of the legislation were overturned by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010, sparking renewed dispute between Democrats and Republicans over the issue of campaign finance. However, the framework for a fair campaign system still stands as a result of Senators Feingold’s and McCain’s commitments to transparency and integrity, and the precedent set by their bipartisan collaboration continues as a standard for advocates still pushing to keep elections focused on the issues rather than on the money.

Photos courtesy of the Bipartisan Policy Center