Campaign Finance Reform
This lesson is designed for social studies classrooms, grades 9-12.
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
Related National Standards
These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning), at http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/ .
Standard 10: Understands the roles of voluntarism and organized groups in American social and political life
Standard 20: Understands the roles of political parties, campaigns, elections, and associations and groups in American politics
Standard 21: Understands the formation and implementation of public policy
Standard 25: Understands issues regarding personal, political and economic rights
Standard 29: Understands the importance of political leadership, public service, and a knowledgeable citizenry in American constitutional democracy
The money that finances a political campaign has tremendous influence on who runs for office, how that person campaigns, and if elected, on how that person prioritizes constituent interests. Critics content that each time Congress has passed a law designed to limit campaign contributions and spending from any one individual or group, contributors have found "loopholes" which let them avoid legal restrictions. Additionally, the Supreme Court has ruled that absolute limits on federal campaign spending violate the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Congress's most recent effort to enact campaign finance reform is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as the McCain-Feingold Bill. Among other provisions, the law bars political parties from raising and spending "soft money" contributions from businesses, labor unions, and individuals. As a result, contributors have given millions of dollars to so-called independent organizations that engage in political activities. One congressman described the growing number of independent organizations as "the greatest threat to the federal election process we have ever seen." (WASHINGTON POST, "New Fundraising Scrutinized", November 21, 2003)
This lesson introduces students to important terminology and issues related to campaign finance reform as it focuses on four questions:
Assumed Student Prior Knowledge
While not absolutely necessary, it would be helpful if students had some knowledge of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution and its application to political contributions and spending.
Before proceeding with the lesson, introduce or review the following:
Political Action Committees (PACs): Organizations established by businesses, labor unions, and interest groups to channel financial contributions into political campaigns.
Buckley v. Valeo, 1976: Landmark Supreme Court case involving the constitutionality of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, as amended in 1974. While the Court upheld limits on contributions to candidates for federal office, it ruled that overall limits on spending by federal candidates and their committees violated the First Amendment. For more information see Hoover Institution, Campaign Finance: Buckley v. Valeo
"Hard" Money: Political contributions that are restricted by election laws.
"Soft" Money: Unregulated contributions to political parties that are theoretically spent on "party-building activities", such as "issue ads" and "get out the vote" campaigns. Such spending is sometimes called a major loophole in federal campaign spending law. For more information, see Common Cause: Campaign Finance Reform; Center for Responsive Politics: Soft Money; and National Center for Policy Analysis: Effects of the Proposed Campaign Finance Law.
Issue Ads: Advertisements that purport to inform citizens about political issues. Critics claim that such ads - paid for with unregulated funds - are used to influence the outcome of elections. For more information, see NOW with Bill Moyers: Interview with Kathleen Hall Jamieson; and WASHINGTON POST: Court Challenge Likely if McCain-Feingold Bill Passes
Public Financing of Presidential Campaigns: Under the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, presidential candidates can receive government subsidies if they accept spending limits. Currently, they can obtain as much as $18.6 million in public subsidies for their campaign through the nominating conventions. In return, they must agree to a $45 million spending limit during that period as well as spending caps in individual states. For the general election, party nominees receive about $75 million in public money. During the 2004 election campaign, President Bush and Democratic candidates Howard Dean and John Kerry refused to accept public funding for the presidential campaigns so that they could raise more money than the rules permit.
Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), Public Law 107-155, also known as the McCain-Feingold Bill: The law, passed on March 27, 2002, places new restrictions on soft money and issue ads. For more information review Federal Elections Commission: Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002; and Common Cause: Campaign Finance Reform. For a full text of the law, see NOW with Bill Moyers: The Clean Election Movement and the "Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002".
McConnell, Mitch, et al. v. Federal Election Commission, 2003: An amalgamation of 11 suits argued that the BCRA limits First Amendment rights. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the BCRA on the key issues of banning "soft-money" contributions and limiting "issue ads." For more information, see NOW with Bill Moyers: Campaign Finance in the Supreme Court; and a legal brief of the case from On the Docket: Medill School of Journalism
1. Ask students if they have received political literature in the mail or seen any campaign ads on TV. Has anyone called their house urging family members to vote? Have they attended a political rally? Point out that these and other aspects of political campaigns cost money-lots of it. For example, a single 30-second TV advertisement can cost $100,000. (WASHINGTON POST, "Bush Ad Criticizes Democrats on Defense," November 22, 2003)
2. Provide students with the following information:
3. Have students add data to this list for how much money federal candidates in your state raised and spent in the 2003-4 election cycle. They can find this out by visiting the Web site for the Federal Election Commission. (Click on "Candidate and PAC/Party Summaries".) Students can also find out the net receipts and expenditures for candidates during the 1999-2000 and 2001-2 election cycles.
4. Ask students to form hypotheses about the effects of costly political campaigns on the democratic process. They could also answer the following questions:
1. Tell students that less than 1 percent of American voters give contributions of $200 or more to candidates, according to the National Voting Rights Institute. Roughly one-tenth of one percent gives $1,000 or more to a candidate for federal office, a political party, or a political action committee. What does this small group of wealthy contributors get in return?
2. To answer this question, ask students to examine the original internal documents from the Republican and Democratic Parties found at NOW with Bill Moyers: Campaign Finance File. These documents include personal letters and e-mails that reveal party officials discussing policy issues with wealthy contributors and offering them access to elected officials. Since there are 29 documents, have each student read one document and summarize its content. Additionally, students may read a related NEW YORK TIMES editorial by Adam Cohen at the Democracy 21 Web site: Court Case Documents Show Money Buys Influence. NOW also has a feature on tracking campaign donations in this cycle, see Campaign Finance 101.
3. Students may compare their findings as a class or in small groups. They should explain who the parties are to the communication (i.e., Republican Party and Bristol-Myers Squibb, Democractic Party and Texaco), what type of communication it is, how the campaign contributor hopes to influence government, and how successful that person or group is. Have students draw conclusions about the influence of wealthy campaign contributors on government.
Part III. Should the government limit campaign contributions and spending?
1. Not everyone agrees that there should be limits on campaign contributions and spending. Have students identify the arguments against campaign contribution and spending limits by reviewing articles from these sources:
2. Brainstorm with students the pros and cons of campaign finance reform.
Arguments in favor of contribution and spending limits include:
1. As a culminating activity, ask students to work as partners or in groups to devise realistic plans for achieving a campaign finance system that balances all concerns. The plans may be presented in a panel discussion or as bills in a mock Congress.
Before proceeding students should explore the following:
Students may be assessed in several ways:
1. During the current election campaign, students can monitor the campaign finances of candidates in their own state and region at the following sites:
NOW with Bill Moyers: Voter Resource Map
Opensecrets.org: Money in Politics Data
Project Vote Smart
Federal Election Commission
Library of Congress: Thomas Legislative Information on the Internet
NOW with Bill Moyers: Interview with Senator John McCain
WASHINGTON POST Special Report: Campaign Finance
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