Campaign costs in the United States have become enormous, with political advertising, especially television, being the greatest expense. As a result, parties and candidates need to raise many millions of dollars. Financial contributions by corporations, labor unions, and other other organizations, individuals, and federal employees as well as expenditures by the parties' national committees have been restricted by law, with the earliest restrictions being those imposed by the Tillman Act (1907), which banned corporate contributions to federal candidates. Loopholes and the development in the 1940s of political action committees as private campaign-funding vehicles, however, limited the effects of such restrictions. Closer regulation of contributions was attempted by establishment of the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) in 1974 and 1976; the FEC provides public financing in return for spending limits.
In the late 1990s, however, the FEC negated some of its own rules and weakened the restrictions. Additionally, the number and funding of political action committees saw significant increases and unlimited
soft money could be raised by political parties (as opposed to candidates) for
party development. Since 2000, a number of major-party presidential candidates have chosen to forgo public financing in order to avoid the associated spending limits. Thus the reforms have not slowed the escalating cost of campaigns.
Attempts in the late 1990s to revamp the way national political campaigns are financed were successfully filibustered in the U.S. Senate, but in 2002 Congress passed legislation to eliminate soft money on the national level and restrict it on the state and local level while increasing the amount that could be donated to a candidate. The bill also restricted the ability of political action committees to mention candidates by name immediately before an election. That and the provisions regarding soft money were challenged in court but narrowly upheld (2003) by the Supreme Court.
In 2007 a more conservative Court narrowed the restrictions on political action committees, and in 2010 the Court narrowly overturned its 2003 decision in part and declared a significant portion of the 2002 legislation unconstitutional when it ruled that Congress could not limit independent expenditures by corporations and unions during elections. Those decisions unleashed enormous political spending in the 2012 elections, when some $2 billion combined was spent on advertising and other campaign activities by the major political parties and their supporters. In 2014 the Supreme Court ended overall limits on expenditures by individuals while retaining limits on how much individuals may contribute to a candidate.
In Great Britain the system of parliamentary government permits the overthrow of the cabinet by a vote of no confidence at any time, and, compared with U.S. congressional elections, this results in a more unified party campaign. British parliamentary and local elections are never held concurrently; campaigns are short and intensive, and party expenditures are comparatively very moderate and are fixed by law.
See V. O. Key, Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups (5th ed. 1964); L. Overacker, Presidential Campaign Funds (1991); J. Pollock, Party Campaign Funds (1991); P. Stern, The Best Congress Money (1991).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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