The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Federal campaigns require a lot of money, but does that money influence political candidates? In this lesson, we'll see how the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act attempts to deal with this question.

Money and American Elections

It's not cheap to run for national office. Sure, the fees to register as a candidate are affordable, but no one's going to vote for you unless you can campaign, and that costs money. Politicians running for federal office--whether it be a seat in Congress or the White House--need financial contributions in order to campaign. However, this raises a dangerous issue: is it possible for wealthy citizens or businesses to effectively buy off a candidate before they've even been elected?

Questions like that are at the heart of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The bill was introduced by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Arizona Republican John McCain (and thus often called the McCain-Feingold Act) but carried out by Marty Meehan (D) and Christopher Shays (R). The goal of the act was to increase regulation of the ways that federal campaigns and candidates could accept money. We understand that our politicians need financing in order to campaign, but the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act helps make sure that financers don't become more powerful than the people.

Russ Feingold and John McCain


The issue of campaign financing is not a new one. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 actually builds upon a much earlier piece of legislation, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. This law set the tone for campaign finance regulation by insisting that candidates make the sources of their contributions publically available. Basically, the idea was that the public had the right to know who was providing major financial support to a candidate.

The Federal Election Campaign Act was amended several times over the years. Limits were placed on the amount of money that a single institution could provide to a candidate (as well as other forms of campaign contributions), and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was created in order to oversee campaign finance regulation. Feel better about campaign ethics yet? A lot of people did, but there were still some issues that needed resolved. That's where the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act came in.

The FEC regulates federal elections

Soft Money and Issue Advocacy

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was created to address two principal areas of concern. First is the issue of soft money. In politics, soft money includes financial donations given to a political party for ''party-building'' expenses. Basically, soft money can be used to help political parties grow and maintain their expenses. So, what's the problem?

The issue is that soft money, by its definition, is not subject to FEC regulations. Soft money is donated in a way that is outside of federal regulatory limits, and political parties were using this as a loophole to accept more donations that a candidate could legally have in order to indirectly campaign for that person. Through party-building, they found ways to increase support for their candidate. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act prohibits this and states that political parties cannot use soft money to attempt to influence a federal, state, or even local election.

The other major focus of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was issue advocacy. When someone creates a campaign ad that directly says ''vote for this candidate,'' that's what we call express advocacy. You are expressly advocating for a candidate. Issue advocacy does not focus on a single candidate, but on a broader social or political issue like health care or gun control. The ad does not ask you to specifically support a candidate, but may suggest that you contact a candidate or politician to express your feelings towards that issue.

A commercial like this is an example of express advocacy, because it directly asks you to support a candidate

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