More than 100 years ago, federal officials realized that political fundraising needed to be regulated to prevent corruption in the American system of electing officials to public office.
The first campaign finance law was the Tillman Act passed in 1907. The action was prompted after the state of New York investigated the amount of corporate money that was donated to the campaign of Teddy Roosevelt. It found that the New York Life Insurance Company donated $48,700 to Roosevelt.
That would be the equivalent of about $13.7 million in today’s dollars. It became obvious that Congress could not allow a single company or a wealthy individual to basically “buy” the candidate of their choice and have that much influence. Doing so would disenfranchise ordinary American citizens.
Since the Tillman Act, Congress has frequently written new political fundraising regulations and sometimes passed sweeping new regulations. That last most significant law was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. It was sponsored by former U.S. Senators John McCain, a Republican, and Russ Feingold, a Democrat.
This law addressed two major issues. It limited the amount of “soft money” that a campaign could collect. It also sought to regulate what are called “issue advocacy ads” that can indirectly support a specific campaign.
This law was challenged in the courts. That resulted in the now infamous 2010 Supreme Court ruling that came to be known as Citizens United. In effect, the decision made it so that corporations could enjoy the same status as “people.” It also unleashed the ability for unlimited amounts of “dark money” to flow into campaigns.
The fact is, campaign finance law has always been extremely controversial and bitterly disputed in courts and within the public realm. From the standpoint of average Americans, what they see is political candidates raking in millions, even billions of dollars in donations in a system where there always seems to be loopholes for whatever regulation might exist on the books.
As it stands today, each person can contribute a maximum of $2,900 to each candidate of their choice. They can also give up to $5,000 to a political action committee. They can donate up to $36,500 to a national election committee per calendar year and $109,500 per year to additional national party accounts.