The Ripple Effect of Scandal and Reform: The Historical Impact of Watergate-Era Campaign Finance Regulation and Its Progeny

  • Victoria A. Farrar-Myers
Part of the The Evolving American Presidency Series book series (EAP)


Looking into the future on October 15, 1974, the day on which President Gerald Ford signed major amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) into law, one might have many questions about the world of campaign finance in the twenty-first century. How did we get from the Senate Watergate Committee uncovering numerous instances of corporations making illegal campaign contributions to President Nixon’s reelections efforts, to allowing corporations to pay for advertisements advocating the election or defeat of candidates for federal office? How did we get from allegations that the Justice Department settled a lawsuit with International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT) in exchange for ITT’s promise to pay for part of the 1972 Republican National Convention to a system in which corporations openly provide large portions of funding for both major parties’ national conventions? How did we get from an era in which a president was impeached in part for failing “to take care that the laws were faithfully executed … concerning other unlawful activities including … the campaign financing practices of the Committee to Re-elect the President”1 to one in which presidential candidates of both parties routinely opt out of the system established out of the reforms generated during the previous era?


Public Financing Free Speech Ripple Effect Presidential Candidate Campaign Finance 
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  1. 2.
    Gerald R. Ford, “Statements on the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974,” October 15, 1974Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Frederick C. Mosher et al., Watergate: Implications for Responsible Government (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 88.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For example, Representative Frank Thompson (D-NJ) proclaimed, “[W]e are answering to an honest and much-needed response from the American public for meaningful election reform. That is the essence of this legislation.” Congressional Record, August 7, 1974, 27230.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    John Sample, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 7.
    Senate Watergate Committee, “The Final Report of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities United States Senate,” 1974, 570.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Summary of 1974 FECA Amendments taken from Victoria Farrar-Myers, Encyclopedia of the American Presidency, Michael A. Genovese, ed., (New York: Facts on File, 2004).Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    For example, Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) claimed that public financing in congressional elections would create a “distinct advantage on behalf of the incumbents, and diminishes the chance for new and aggressive, intelligent and worthwhile challengers.” Congressional Record, March 28, 1974, 8771.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Senator James Allen (D-AL) contended that “I do not believe it is right for Members of Congress to provide that the taxpayers, through the public Treasury, should pay for their election campaigns.” Congressional Record, March 28, 1974, 8771.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Rep. Joel Broyhill (R-VA) stated that “The cure for ‘Fat-cat’ contributions, as they are called, is not by discouraging more contributors to political campaigns, but inviting more in, by giving them an incentive to participate.” Congressional Record, August 8, 1974, 27466.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    See, for example, Steven M. Gillon, That’s Not What We Meant To Do: Reform and Its Unintended Consequences in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    Frederick C. Mosher et al., Watergate: Implications for Responsible Government (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 89.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Senator Howard Baker (R-TN), Congressional Record, March 28, 1974, 8772.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    Representative Joel Broyhill (R-VA), Congressional Record, August 8, 1974, 27466.Google Scholar
  14. 20.
    Victoria A. Farrar-Myers, “Money for Nothing?: The Politics of Reform, Actual Corruption, and the Appearance of Corruption” in Michael A. Genovese and Victoria A. Farrar-Myers, eds., Corruption and American Politics (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010) 309–310.Google Scholar
  15. 24.
    For an analysis of how these and other competing values have played out in various aspects of the political arena, see Victoria A. Farrar-Myers and Diana Dwyre, Limits & Loopholes: The Quest for Money, Free Speech, and Fair Elections (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 29.
    Alan Silverleib “Gloves Come off after Obama Rips Supreme Court Ruling,” January 28, 2010, visited February 26, 2011, Scholar
  17. 37.
    All data regarding small donors were derived from Anthony J. Carrado, Michael J. Malbin, Thomas E. Mann, and Norman J. Ornstein, Reform in an Age of Networked Campaigns: How to Foster Citizen Participation through Small Donors and Volunteers, 2010, visited February 28, 2011 Scholar
  18. 40.
    These estimates were calculated based on data available in Carrado et al. In their report, Carrado et al. present data for the total dollars each candidate raised during the 2008 presidential primary system grouped by contributors who donates $200 or less, $201-$999, and $1,000 or more. If one assumes that the average contribution within each grouping is $100, $500, and $1,500 respectively, dividing the total fund raised by a candidate within each group by the assumed average contribution amount for that group will yield an estimated number of contributors. The basis for this analysis is drawn from Victoria A. Farrar-Myers, “Donors, Dollars and Momentum: Waging a Viable Campaign for the White Flouse,” in Meena Bose, ed., From Votes to Victory: Winning and Governing the White House in the Twenty-First Century, (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011).Google Scholar
  19. 42.
    For a more in-depth examination of the Texas 17th district race, see Victoria A. Farrar-Myers and Daniel Davis Sledge, “The Perfect Storm: Edwards vs. Flores in Texas’s Seventeenth Congressional District,” in Randall E. Adkins and David A. Dulio, eds., Cases in Congressional Campaigns: Riding the Wave, (New York: Routledge, 2011).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Michael A. Genovese and Iwan W. Morgan 2012

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  • Victoria A. Farrar-Myers

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