by Billy Corriher, Director of Research for Legal Progress, Center for American Progress
Early on in Robert Mutch's book, Buying the Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform, the identity of the villain is clear. Mutch describes the campaign finance reformers of the early twentieth century as focused on keeping corporations from exerting too much influence on politics and politicians. As large corporations first emerged, the public debated the proper role of these institutions in our democracy. After a series of scandals, early reformers' goals included "keeping corporate money out of elections and preventing the inequality of wealth from undermining political equality among individual citizens."
Mutch also clearly disagrees with the current U.S. Supreme Court's approach to campaign finance reform. But unlike so much commentary today, Mutch provides rich context for his critique. He begins with early campaign finance scandals and the small triumphs of reformers like Louise Overacker. The early reformers achieved some victories, after the public learned that "the country's major political parties were being financed by" large corporations. New laws led to disclosure of campaign contributors and bans on corporate campaign cash.
The second wave of reforms came in the wake of Nixon's secret receipt of campaign contributions from corporations. But Mutch notes that, unlike the response to the first wave, opponents rushed to the courts to block the new laws. The definition of democracy as excluding corporations was challenged when "the enforcement provisions of the post-Watergate laws raised the possibility that the....reforms would be more than symbolic."
In the face of campaign finance reform, environmental regulations, and consumer advocates, big business felt like it was under attack at the time. Justice Lewis Powell, while an attorney for the US Chamber of Commerce, wrote an infamous memo warning that business needed direct political action to counter the "assault on the enterprise system."