Pros & Cons of Campaign Finance Reform

Instructor: Matt Lamb

Matt has tutored for six years now, in a variety of subjects including reading, essay writing, chemistry, and theology. He is finishing his M.A. in Political Science this August.

In this lesson, we will look at the issue of campaign finance reform. Campaign finance refers to the way campaigns for public office are funded, including disclosure of donations and limits on donations.

Basics Of Campaign Finance

Campaign finance refers to how we fund our elections, as well as limits on donations, disclosure of funds, and how funds are allowed to be spent. Local, state, and federal elections can have different rules, but there are a few basic issues that are always at play.

First, how should donations be disclosed? In basically every election, a candidate or campaign committee must disclose their expenditures, which is how much money they spend, as well as their donations. Sometimes that is all that is required. However, election laws often require more detailed accounting, such as who donated money, how much they donated, and where the money was spent. For example, if you are running for the U.S. Senate, the campaign would have to disclose who gave you money, as well as where you spend the money. This might include money for ads, consultants, polling, and other necessities.

Second, should there be limits on who can donate and how much can be donated? For example, some states ban donations from corporations. Other states place limits on donations from individuals, either donations in total or donations to a candidate. Most campaign finance issues revolve around donation limits and transparency, as you can see.

I voted sticker
I voted sticker

Pros Of Campaign Finance Reform

For this lesson, we will define campaign finance reform as limiting corporate spending on elections, limiting overall donations, and increasing transparency of donations, as these are the most common reforms pushed.

Currently, corporations cannot donate directly to candidates in federal elections. For example, Exxon Mobil cannot write a check to a Senate or Presidential campaign. However, they can set up PACS, or political action committees that support issues and sometimes candidates. Changing federal law to prohibit companies setting up their own political action committees could remove the influence of companies and industries on candidates. A candidate that was voting for environmental legislation, for example, would not have to worry about oil and gas companies opposing them with ads or campaign literature.

Limiting overall donations would also help equalize donations. For example, a wealthy person limited to $250 per candidate would be giving at a level an average citizen could also donate at.

Finally, transparency is usually included in campaign finance reform efforts. This could include a donor disclosing what industry they work in, and candidates disclosing who their donors are. The argument here is that if we know a politician is receiving money from a certain industry or influential person, we'll have a better idea of what their priorities are. For example, some politicians came under scrutiny after the Wall Street collapse in 2007 for receiving donations from banks and investment companies.

Senator John McCain pushed for campaign finance reforms in 2003


The cons of the suggestions below are a matter of trade-offs. For example, while it may make sense to say corporations cannot donate to candidates directly, we might want to ask why? Businesses are just as much affected by new laws and regulations than a voter is. If there is legislation that will harm say, the steel industry, why shouldn't businesses be able to donate to candidates that will oppose the legislation?

In limiting donations, we can see another issue. For example, why shouldn't people who support a candidate be able to donate unlimited sums to the candidate? Currently, through PACS, people or companies can spend unlimited amounts of money on a candidate as it is.

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