Archives Report  

How Congress Passed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971
Todd Kosmerick
The 1968 presidential election sent shockwaves through the political world. It had been far more expensive than the one of just four years earlier, and the major cause was the cost of broadcast advertising. After the election, the Democratic party was $8 million in debt, and party members were already worrying about the 1972 contest. 

At the same time, public trust in government was declining. Opinion polls showed that increasing numbers of Americans believed that big interests and/or corrupt politicians controlled the government. With rising campaign costs, some citizens, politicians, and public-interest groups worried that only candidates with wealth or with wealthy backers could afford to run for office. They demanded campaign reform. 

This was serious business for some members of the Democratic party who viewed themselves as representing the common people and Republicans as representing moneyed interests. In 1969, the Democratic National Committee established a task force on campaign financing. The Democrat-controlled 91st Congress (1969-1970) passed a bill that addressed only broadcast campaigning. Although it received popular support, it was condemned by the broadcast industry. President Richard Nixon vetoed it on October 12, 1970, claiming that it unfairly singled out broadcasters and did not provide comprehensive reform. The Senate was unable to override the veto. 

As the 92nd Congress began in January 1971, Democrats licked their wounds and planned a new strategy to pass campaign reform. The Senate initiated the legislative process, with S. 382, which underwent committee hearings that spring. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), a longtime advocate of campaign reform, and his colleagues John Pastore (D-R.I.) and Howard Cannon (D-Nev.) sponsored the bill, which was referred simultaneously to the Commerce, Finance, and Rules Committees. Mansfield, as Senate majority leader, had chosen this move to avoid jurisdictional disputes, which ". . . have greatly hindered, if not prevented, the enactment of any bill. As any part of this whole broad package was referred to a Committee and ultimately reported from a Committee, it was always subjected to 'it doesn't go far enough'- the same reaction President Nixon took in vetoing last year's act." 

Mansfield believed the most important part of the legislation was a provision for public financing through tax credits or deductions. Because the House holds the constitutional prerogative over revenue issues, the majority leader needed to coordinate the efforts of the Senate with those of the lower chamber. His goal was a tax bill that included a Senate amendment on campaign reform. 

By June 1971, the Senate committees began reporting out S. 382, and Mansfield sought the cooperation of his House counterpart, Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.), as well as that of House Ways and Means Committee chair, Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.). The latter recognized campaign finance as an interest of Senator Russell Long (D-La.) and recommended that the four of them meet and work out a strategy: " . . . if there is to be a successful effort, I think it is crucial that we all have a firm understanding of what we want and what can be done." 

In June and July, these congressmen, together with Pastore, Senator Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), and Representative Torbert Macdonald (D-Mass.), hammered out a strategy. They agreed that the essential aspects of campaign reform would be provisions that limited expenditures, mandated full disclosure of expenses, and financed campaigns with public funds. These could not be compromised during floor debate. A conflict arose between Mansfield and Long about inclusion of financing in S. 382. Public financing would help Democrats, and the Louisiana senator wrote his colleagues, "I doubt very much that a Republican president will sign into law any measure which reduces or neutralizes the advantage that the Republicans have in terms of greater access to campaign funding, nor could we override a veto." He believed that provisions for spending limitations and reporting of donations and expenses would be easier to enact into law. Mansfield responded, however, that "dividing into pieces has led in the past to the death of these proposals." 

For parliamentary reasons, the seven finally agreed to remove the campaign financing provisions from the Senate bill. Mills proposed that the deleted measures be attached to the welfare bill that would be considered in the fall. He also recommended that if the White House indicated disapproval with Congress's reform then the whole package should be attached to the welfare legislation, which the president would find difficult to veto. 

On July 20, the Senate leaders called up a pared-down S. 382 for floor debate. This surprised many Republican senators, who opposed that bill and expected instead to consider one of their pet projects, a measure to lend money to the Lockheed Aircraft Company. Because the clock was ticking toward the August 6 recess, senators would have to pass campaign reform first in order to get the Lockheed loan in time. The strategy worked, and the bill was approved by an 88-2 vote on August 5. 

The Senate bill would impose spending limits of ten cents multiplied by voting-age population for periodical and broadcast advertising. No more than six cents could be used for either one. The legislation would require broadcasters and publishers to sell advertising time or space to candidates at the lowest unit rate in effect for the time and space used. This restriction would be in effect for forty-five days prior to a primary and sixty days prior to a general election. S. 382 would strengthen existing reporting requirements, and it would create a bipartisan federal election commission to administer the reporting and disclosure of contributions and expenditures and to monitor campaign practices. Candidates and their families would be limited in the amount they could contribute to their own campaigns: $50,000 for presidents or vice presidents, $35,000 for senators, and $25,000 for representatives. The bill would also repeal the equal time provision of the 1934 Communications Act in order to promote broadcast debate between major party candidates. 

Even before the Senate passed S. 382, the House had commenced work on campaign reform. Representative Macdonald had sponsored H. R. 8628, which had been referred to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Committee Chair Harley O. Staggers (D-W.Va.) refused to schedule it for consideration despite the push of the House and Senate leaders. Newspaper accounts suggested that Staggers was retaliating for the House's rejection of his contempt of Congress resolution against the president of CBS. The West Virginia congressman personally blamed Albert, and an aide was quoted as saying "It'll be a long time before Harley does any favors for the leadership." Wayne Hays (D-Ohio), chair of the Committee on House Administration, drafted another bill, H. R. 8284, on which his committee's Subcommittee on Elections held hearings. With two committees claiming jurisdiction over the topic and with tempers flaring, the Speaker needed to tread carefully in order for the House to pass any legislation. When the approved Senate bill came to the other side of the Capitol, it promptly went to the Speaker's table, where he could control the time at which it came up for debate. 

Congress reconvened in September, and members of the two House committees returned to work on their respective bills. The Subcommittee on Elections asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to scrutinize the Hays bill, which placed much of the responsibility for monitoring elections within that agency. Acting Comptroller General R. F. Keller sent back a letter stating his opposition to this measure: "Not only must we remain free from political influence, but we must zealously avoid being placed in a position in which we might be subject to criticism, whether justified or not, that our action and decisions are prejudiced or influenced by political considerations." He recommended an independent federal election commission similar to the one proposed in S. 382. 

Other criticism against H. R. 8284 focused on provisions for reporting of expenses. The bill required candidates to submit reports on spending and contributions only forty-five days after an election, and the committee debated whether or not to require another report ten to fifteen days prior to an election. This was less stringent than the existing law, which, while rarely enforced, mandated quarterly reports. The bill also addressed spending limits, set at six cents times voting-age population for presidential and Senate campaigns and no more than $50,000 total for House campaigns. 

The House leadership acknowledged the criticism and pushed for different legislation. Hays introduced a new bill, H. R. 11060, in lieu of H. R. 8284, and it was approved 20-4 by the House Administration Committee on October 4. This new bill, however, still struck some as weak, and the comptroller general complained to Speaker Albert that it also contained objectionable provisions for GAO oversight. 

Meanwhile, the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee dragged its heels on the Macdonald bill. Some congressional Democrats became alarmed that no campaign reform legislation would be enacted. James Abourezk (D-S.Dak.), then a representative but later a senator, wrote to Speaker Albert, "I feel that failure to pass strong legislation in this area will hand a big advantage to a well-financed Republican candidate in my state, to equally well financed Republicans in Congressional and Senate races across the country, and, of course, to President Nixon." John Barriere, executive director of the Democratic Steering Committee, also urged Albert to pressure Staggers to schedule meetings in order to get the bill reported out. The Speaker responded that he was trying to push a bill through the committee. 

During September 1971, the Staggers committee reviewed provisions for spending limits and repeal of the equal time clause for presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The bill limited candidates to five cents multiplied by the voting-age population for broadcast media and an additional five cents per voting-age population for other forms of advertising. Republicans, however, successfully forced adoption of an amendment that eliminated the distinction and effectively doubled the limit. They succeeded in part because too many Democrats had been absent from the committee meetings. On October 6, however, Democrats mustered all of their forces, and the stricter limits were reimposed. The committee finally approved H. R. 8628 by a 23-20 vote. 

Many newspaper commentators, as well as such organizations as the AFL-CIO, the National Committee for an Effective Congress, and Common Cause, opposed sections of the Hays bill. They generally supported a combination of the Senate and Macdonald bills. Sceptics doubted that such a blend could survive the parliamentary process, and passage of an effective bill was considered unlikely. At the same time, many people in the newspaper and broadcast industry wrote to their representatives criticizing the equal time repeal and the lowest unit rate provision, and they were gaining support among many Republicans. 

A bipartisan group reflected on this criticism as it hammered out a strategy for passage in the House. On November 5, 1971, the Rules Committee reported out H. R. 11231 (sponsored by Torbert Macdonald and identical to and substituted for H. R. 8628) and H. R. 11060 (the Hays bill). The first bill would be offered as a new Title I to the second, and then it would be amended to raise the five-cent broadcast limit to six, and to extend repeal of the equal time provision to Senate, but not House, races. The leadership still considered toothless the Hays bill, so H. R. 11280 would be offered as an amendment in the nature of a substitute for H. R. 11060 and the new Macdonald bill would become its Title I. This legislative conglomeration would then be amended with a measure to create an election commission that would supervise and make policies on reporting of contributions. The commission members would be appointed by the president, House Speaker, and Senate president pro tem. 

The showdown began on November 18. Not all of the strategy worked, and the whole legislation was jeopardized when debate focused on amendments that would affect labor union contributions to candidates. Philip Crane (R-Ill.) wanted to ban these donations completely. Many Democrats who had strong backing from organized labor could not support such a measure. It "would cripple labor's aid to [the] Democratic Party, " John Barriere reminded Speaker Albert. A compromise was offered in the form of an amendment by Orval Hansen (R-Idaho), who wanted only to regulate union and corporate expenditures for political activities. 

On November 30, the House voted 372-23 to pass the bill. There were a number of compromises. The Democratic leadership had not succeeded in repealing the equal time provision, garnering an election commission, capping expenditures by House candidates at $50,000, limiting candidates' (and family) contributions to their own campaigns, or mandating the lowest unit rate for air time or print space. 

With the House and Senate bills differing, a conference committee met to formulate a compromise, which was reached on December 14. The legislation became known as the Federal Election Campaign act of 1971. It stated that candidates for all federal offices could not spend more than ten cents multiplied by the voting-age population on broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and billboard advertising, or on mass telephone campaigning. No more than six cents could be spent on any single media. Broadcasters could sell time only at the lowest rate offered to a commercial advertiser. Candidates would have to disclose reports on campaign expenditures, individual contributions of more than $100, and money gained through fund-raising events. Nine reports were required every two years: three during off years and six during election years with two due fifteen and five days before elections. The provisions for a federal election commission, equal time repeal, and spending and individual contribution limits were completely dropped. 

On December 14, the Senate passed the compromise. In the House, though, too many members had already left for the holiday recess. Congress adjourned on December 17, and Albert declared that enactment of the legislation would be the first order of business in January 1972. With mounting opposition to the bill by the broadcast industry, Justice Department action against the continuation of labor political action committees, and a looming court case against the Democratic party, swift action was needed. After brief debate, the House passed the bill by a vote of 334-20 on January 19, 1972. President Nixon signed it into law on February 7. 

In the meantime, partial success had been achieved on the financing end of campaign reform. During the June-July 1971 meetings, the Democratic leaders had decided to write the campaign financing provisions into a "significant revenue-sharing measure." Wilbur Mills had proposed that this be the welfare bill. By November, however, that legislation had been pushed to the side by President Nixon's New Economic Policy, which the House passed as H. R. 10947. The Senate leadership decided to add to it an amendment for public financing. On November 22, based on a plan devised by Mike Mansfield and John Pastore, the upper house amended the bill with a provision that taxpayers could check off on their income tax forms if they wanted $1.00 of their tax payment to go to a presidential campaign fund. It would also allow campaign contributors to receive a tax credit or be allowed a deduction for contributions. The money would be first collected in 1972 and available for that year's election. Republicans viewed the move as a Democratic bailout. Charles Mathias (R-Md.) forced through an amendment to allow tax payers to designate the party they wanted their contributions to go to. The Senate then approved the bill. 

As the legislation went into a joint conference committee, President Nixon threatened to veto it unless it went into effect after the 1972 election. The House conference leader was Mills, who wanted the bill's $26 billion tax cut enacted. He gave in to the president's demand, and the bill was changed to take effect on January 1, 1973. Both houses of Congress had passed the conference report by December 8, and Nixon signed it into law. 

Going into the next election cycle, the Democratic leaders in Congress could congratulate themselves for passing campaign reform. They touted the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the tax form checkoff provision as "significant reform" even though they had fallen short of their original goal. Public financing was effectively delayed until after the 1972 election, and the candidates still relied on wealthy contributors. Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern was reported to have significantly less to spend than Richard Nixon. Media commentators and public-interest groups maintained that reporting and monitoring requirements still remained weak and ineffective. 

Nonetheless, the legislation was the first major change in campaign laws in decades. Without a congressional consensus on all points and strong presidential backing, little more could have been done. During the two years after enactment of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, however, the scandal of Watergate revealed to Congress and the public the widespread contribution and spending abuses of President Nixon and his campaign committee. Only in its aftermath was Congress able to pass a campaign reform bill that contained many of the features left out of the 1971 one. 


The archival materials quoted in this report are contained within the Carl Albert, Fred Harris, and Tom Steed Collections at the Carl Albert Center Congressional Archives, University of Oklahoma. 


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