NOW with Bill Moyers

Campaign Finance Reform
This lesson is designed for social studies classrooms, grades 9-12.

  • Lesson Objectives
  • Relevant National Standards
  • Estimated Time
  • Materials Needed
  • Backgrounder for Teachers
  • Assumed Student Prior Knowledge
  • Teaching Strategy
  • Assessment Suggestions
  • Extension Ideas
  • Related Resources
  • About the Author

Lesson Objectives
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
  1. Describe the costs of American political campaigns and assess the effects of heavy campaign spending on the democratic process.
  2. Explain the relationship between large campaign contributions and federal policy and legislation.
  3. Develop arguments for and against campaign finance reform and draw conclusions.
  4. Examine federal and state laws that attempt to limit contributions to political candidates.
  5. Evaluate various plans for campaign finance reform and formulate their own programs.

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 .


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

Estimated Time to Complete Lesson

Parts I, II, and III of this lesson will consume one to two 50-minute class periods each. Part IV requires at least two classroom periods and some homework.

Materials Needed

Backgrounder for Teachers

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:

  • How much money do Americans spend on political campaigns?
  • Do wealthy contributors "buy" government influence?
  • Should the government limit campaign contributions and spending?
Research materials on this topic are listed in both the Teaching Strategy and Related Resources sections of this lesson plan.

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.

Teaching Strategy

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

Part I. How much money do Americans spend on political campaigns?

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:

  • According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a tight race for the House of Representatives cost approximately $1.5 million to $2 million in 2000. The average cost was $840,000.
  • Huge spending in New Jersey and New York in 2000 raised the average cost of a Senate seat to $7.3 million.
  • A study by Common Cause reveals that before the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act took effect on November 6, 2002, the Democratic and Republican Parties raised a record-breaking $470.6 million in soft money during the 2001-2002 election cycle. In the 2000 cycle, Democrats raised $219,343,172 in soft money, while Republicans collected $243,780,583 in unregulated funds.

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:

  • Does the prospect of raising huge sums of money may discourage well-qualified persons from running for office?
  • What could incumbents do instead of spending atime raising campaign funds?
  • Will candidates politically obligated to wealthy contributors?

Part II. Do wealthy contributors "buy" government influence?

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:

  • National Center for Policy Analysis: Campaign Finance Reform

  • The Cato Institute: Money and Politics

    2. Brainstorm with students the pros and cons of campaign finance reform.

    Arguments in favor of contribution and spending limits include:

    • Wealthy individuals, unions, corporations, and interest groups use political contributions to advanced their own legislative agendas, undermining the will of the people.
    • Wealthy contributors may actually determine who is elected to office.
    • The need to raise large amounts of money may discourage qualified persons from running for office.
    • Preoccupation with money-raising may keep office holders from doing their jobs.
    Arguments against limits on campaign contributions and spending include:
    • Placing caps on campaign spending is an unconstitutional limit on freedom of speech.
    • Spending limits could prevent lesser-known challengers from getting their message out.
    • Attempts to reform campaign financing often create new problems. Examples: 1) The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 created Political Action Committees (PACs), which generated even higher levels of campaign spending by interest groups. 2) To avoid provisions of BCRA, wealthy donors are giving huge sums to independent organizations that engage in political activities.
    • Campaign reform can be achieved by relying on complete disclosure of fund sources rather than spending limits or public financing of political campaigns.
    Students can find all these arguments in greater detail from NOW's campaign finance reform resources. Students could discuss the merits of both sides, or form teams to debate the issue. An optional debate rubric is included in the Materials Needed section of this lesson plan.

    Part IV. What is the best way to finance elections?

    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:

    2. After the plans are presented, students may decide which proposals could actually reduce candidates' reliance on wealthy contributors and still preserve Americans' right to freedom of expression.

    Assessment Suggestions

    Students may be assessed in several ways:

    1. You may assign points for substantive contributions to the brainstorming session and class discussions.
    2. If students engage in debate in Part III, you may use the debate rubric provided in the Materials Needed section of this lesson plan.

    Extension Ideas

    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
    This U.S. map has links to state-by-state voter information. Some state resources reveal how much money each candidate has raised and from whom. Money in Politics Data
    The Center for Responsive Politics provides up-to-date financial data on presidential and congressional candidates and interest groups. Access information by name of politician, state, or zip code. For example, you can type in your zip code and find the names of neighbors who have contributed $200 or more to a political candidate, the amount, and to whom.

    Project Vote Smart
    Look up information about candidates and elected officials in five categories: backgrounds, issue positions, campaign finances, performance evaluations, and voting records. Search by name of candidate, zip code, issue, or bill number.

    Related Resources
    The NOW Web site has a list of campaign finance resources. For further research on this topic, consider the following:

    Democracy 21
    This watchdog organization offers the latest news and information on money and politics, campaign finance reform efforts, and implementation of campaign finance laws.

    Federal Election Commission
    This government resource provides campaign finance reports and data, campaign finance law resources, FEC rule-making necessary to implement campaign finance laws, and news releases related to campaign finances.

    Library of Congress: Thomas Legislative Information on the Internet
    Search for bills by number or word/phrase. Find the status of bills and full text or summary.

    NOW with Bill Moyers: Interview with Senator John McCain
    This 12/13/02 interview discusses reactions to the McCain-Feingold Bill, the effects of campaign contributions from pharmaceutical, fossil fuel, and telecommunications companies, and the experiment with public funding of candidates in Arizona.

    This independent campaign finance Web site provides current data on contributions by individuals, PACs, and lobbyists to political parties and candidates.

    WASHINGTON POST Special Report: Campaign Finance
    The WASHINGTON POST breaks down campaign finance reform into basic terms and examines issues, reforms, and related statistics.

    About the Author
    Nancy Hall is a former educational writer and social studies teacher in the Fairfax County, Virginia, public schools. She is vice president of children's activities for the Opera Guild of Northern Virginia and a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for abused and neglected children in Fairfax County. Nancy received a B.A. in history from Duke University and a Master's of Education from the University of Virginia. She writes educational lesson plans for PBS on a regular basis.