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Thursday, December 30, 2010

The State of Campaign Finance Policy: Recent Developments and Issues for Congress

R. Sam Garrett
Analyst in American National Government

Campaign finance policy is arguably at a crossroads. For decades, Congress, regulatory agencies, and courts have emphasized the need to reduce potential corruption by providing public disclosure of information about campaign contributions and expenditures. Preventing corruption and enhancing transparency remain prominent themes in campaign finance policy, but what those goals mean and how they should be accomplished appears to be in flux.

Both minor and major changes have occurred in campaign finance policy since 2002, when Congress last substantially amended campaign finance law via the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). More recently, the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and a related lower-court decision, v. Federal Election Commission, arguably represent the most fundamental changes to campaign finance law in decades. During the 111
th Congress, the House responded by enacting the DISCLOSE Act (H.R. 5175; S. 3295; S. 3628). The Senate has, thus far, declined to do so.

Fundraising and spending in the 2010 election cycle suggest that previously prohibited sources and amounts of funds will continue to be a factor in federal elections. Activities by independentexpenditure- only political action committees (commonly called super PACs) and tax-exempt organizations that are typically not political committees (e.g., many Internal Revenue Code 501(c) and 527 organizations) may be particularly prominent.

Despite these recent developments, some traditional aspects of campaign finance policy, such as disclosure requirements and most contribution limits, remain unchanged. Issues such as the presidential public financing program and the Federal Election Commission may require congressional attention regardless of more recent developments. In addition, the Supreme Court will continue examining campaign finance issues during the 112
th Congress. Arizona Free Enterprise, et al. v. Bennett and McComish v. Bennett appear to be most relevant for state-level policy, but might also affect federal campaign finance law or legislation in Congress.

As Congress decides how or whether to revisit law surrounding political campaigns, it may be appropriate to take stock of the current landscape and to examine what has changed, what has not, and what policy options might be relevant. This report provides a starting point for doing so. It includes an overview of selected historical and recent developments. It also provides comments on how those events might affect future policy considerations.

Date of Report: December 21, 2010
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: R41542
Price: $29.95

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