Ask Cokie: Why Were Campaign Finance Laws Put In Place? David Greene talks to columnist and commentator Cokie Roberts, who answers listener questions about the history of campaign finance reform.

Ask Cokie: Why Were Campaign Finance Laws Put In Place?

Ask Cokie: Why Were Campaign Finance Laws Put In Place?

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David Greene talks to columnist and commentator Cokie Roberts, who answers listener questions about the history of campaign finance reform.


As we have been looking back on the political career of John McCain, we have heard a great deal about bipartisanship, especially around one issue. This is Senator McCain at a campaign rally in Michigan in 2000.


JOHN MCCAIN: We have to have campaign finance reform. We have to do away with this soft money. And let me tell you why - because young Americans - young Americans are being alienated from the process.

GREENE: Campaign finance reform was a central issue for John McCain, and he finally achieved his objective in 2002 when the McCain-Feingold Act passed. But since then, the Supreme Court has taken large chunks out of that law. With this checkered history of attempts to limit money in political campaigns, we wanted to take your questions about campaign finance reform and put them to commentator Cokie Roberts, who joins us each week to talk about how the government works.

Hi, Cokie.


GREENE: So let's get right to our first question which, I think really gets to the why and how of these laws.

RACHEL KAHLER: This is Rachel Kahler from Blaine, Minn. Why were campaign finance laws put in place? Probably the better question is how they managed to get passed in the first place.

GREENE: Take it, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Well, the very first law I know of does, in fact, pre-date the country. It was passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses in the 1750s.


ROBERTS: And it stipulated that no money, meat, drink, entertainment, et cetera, be provided to a voter in exchange for an expected vote. And it came in direct response to what his fellow legislators saw as a not-quite-right event staged by George Washington, who had thrown a big party for prospective voters and won after losing his bid two years earlier. That's how most of these laws come into play, David, the result of some sort of scandal in the most recent campaigns.

GREENE: OK. Well, our next listener wants to know some more about those laws.

CHRIS BILLIAU: This is Chris Billiau from Thetford, Vt. I think campaign finance law is so complicated that maybe a brief history of the laws from the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to the present might help put current issues into context.

GREENE: Oh, Cokie just give us a brief history from 1971...

ROBERTS: Brief history - well...

GREENE: ...Why don't you (laughter)?

ROBERTS: ...Even before '71, in the 19th century, candidates were prohibited from soliciting government workers. Then, corporate contributions to candidates were made illegal in 1907, followed by the Federal Corrupt Practices Act in 1910. And then what became something of a pattern, the Supreme Court struck down that law. But Congress kept at it with the Republican majority outlawing contributions by labor unions. And then, finally, the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act providing spending limits on TV ads, federal financing for campaigns and then eventually, after the Watergate scandals, creating the enforcement arm, the Federal Elections Commission.

GREENE: And let me guess - the Supreme Court overturned that.

ROBERTS: Yes, at least parts of it. And everybody found loopholes. So when McCain-Feingold was passed, it was a big day. The Supreme Court initially upheld that law but subsequently overturned provisions of it with rulings like Citizens United allowing corporations and unions back into the money game.

GREENE: All right. And that sort of brings us to today. And actually, our last question comes from a listener who wants to know about a pretty current campaign issue, and that's foreign money.

TOM CHELSTON: This is Tom Chelston from Colorado. And I wondered, has any other politician been investigated or prosecuted for taking campaign cash or assistance from a foreign government?

ROBERTS: Yes, it's happened over and over. Most notably, the Democratic National Committee and foreign contributors had to pay a more than $700,000 fine for violations in 1996. And then in the last campaign, Bernie Sanders had to pay $14,500 because kids who had a stipend from the Australian Labor Party volunteered in his campaign. Foreign money is still the area where the law is clear, David. It's illegal.

GREENE: There you have it. Commentator Cokie Roberts, thanks as always.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you.

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