One Good Book: No Major Scandal? No Campaign Finance Reform.

Nothing changes government like a crisis.

Demonstrators sponsored by the National Campaign to Impeach Nixon pass the White House and Washington Monument on a March to Capitol Hill on April 27, 1974 to urge lawmakers to speed up impeachment of President Richard Nixon. It was the first major protest in a year in the nation's capitol. Fewer than expected numbers turned out for the march and mostly were all young. 
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Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
July 18, 2014, 1 a.m.

Noth­ing changes gov­ern­ment like a crisis. Think of the re­cent con­gres­sion­al ceil­ings and cliffs, or a bit fur­ther back to the post-9/11 USA Pat­ri­ot Act and the Au­thor­iz­a­tion for Use of Mil­it­ary Force. Crises re­shape how Amer­ica treats its cit­izens, and how it be­haves in the world.

The Wa­ter­gate break-in sparked out­rage — and led to change. (UPI Photo)But gov­ern­ing by crisis isn’t any­thing new. The prac­tice dates back cen­tur­ies, and it has helped shape a broad range of Amer­ic­an policy. As Robert E. Mutch writes in his ex­haust­ive new his­tory of money in polit­ics, Buy­ing the Vote (Ox­ford Uni­versity Press, 2014),crisis helped mold Amer­ica’s cam­paign fin­ance sys­tem. And for more re­form to hap­pen, our polit­ic­al sys­tem may need an­oth­er crisis to come along.

Mutch ar­gues that a good scan­dal needs three com­pon­ents. First, the prac­tice at the root of the scan­dal must be something that the pub­lic finds im­prop­er, wheth­er or not it is ex­pli­citly il­leg­al. Second, people en­gaged in the prac­tice must try to hide it. Third, those people must then be found out, caus­ing, Mutch writes, “an out­raged pub­lic to de­mand that Con­gress ‘do something.’ “

In Mutch’s telling, two cycles of scan­dal have shaped cam­paign fin­ance re­form. The first was kick-star­ted in 1905 when the head of the in­sur­ance firm New York Life ad­mit­ted to Con­gress that his cor­por­a­tion had giv­en a $48,702.50 check to the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee for the pre­vi­ous year’s elec­tion. On the heels of that came the rev­el­a­tion in 1907 that rail­road ty­coon E.H. Har­ri­m­an had raised $250,000 at the re­quest of Teddy Roosevelt for his 1904 cam­paign.

The res­ult: a ser­i­ously scan­dal­ized pub­lic and, ul­ti­mately, cam­paign fin­ance le­gis­la­tion. The Till­man Act, passed in 1907, barred cor­por­ate con­tri­bu­tions in elec­tions, while the Fed­er­al Cor­rupt Prac­tices Act (also known as the Pub­li­city Act) of 1910 re­quired the dis­clos­ure of cam­paign funds.

In the 1970s, a second scan­dal cycle would con­tain all of these ele­ments and then some. Mutch pos­its that the rev­el­a­tion that Richard Nix­on’s Com­mit­tee to Reelect the Pres­id­ent was hid­ing il­leg­al cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions wouldn’t have led to a land­scape-chan­ging scan­dal if not for its con­nec­tion to the Wa­ter­gate break-in. But the con­flu­ence of mis­con­duct res­ul­ted in the most wide-ran­ging piece of cam­paign fin­ance re­form le­gis­la­tion the coun­try had ever seen.

The Fed­er­al Elec­tions Cam­paign Act amend­ments of 1974 ex­pan­ded dis­clos­ure re­quire­ments, strengthened con­tri­bu­tion and ex­pendit­ure lim­its, and gave rise to the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion. Un­for­tu­nately for re­formers, the law ran in­to the Su­preme Court, which in 1976 knocked down its ex­pendit­ure lim­its in Buckley v. Va­leo — a de­cision that gave us the dictum that money is equal to speech un­der the First Amend­ment.

That wasn’t the end of this scan­dal cycle, though. Mutch caps it off with the Bi­par­tis­an Cam­paign Re­form Act of 2002, also known as Mc­Cain-Fein­gold. The law was an out­growth of pub­lic frus­tra­tion over the in­creas­ing amount of “soft money” in the 1996 and 2000 pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns — but pub­lic an­ger really took off only when the En­ron scan­dal re­vealed just how much soft money busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ives were fun­nel­ing in­to elec­tions. (In Cit­izens United, the Su­preme Court would later evis­cer­ate these re­forms.)

Today, the sus­pect use of su­per PACs — which aren’t sup­posed to co­ordin­ate with polit­ic­al can­did­ates but of­ten ap­pear to cross that line — would seem to meet many of Mutch’s re­quire­ments for scan­dal. What’s lack­ing, however, is the kind of pub­lic out­rage that ac­com­pan­ied Wa­ter­gate or the turn-of-the-cen­tury epis­odes. Sure, it could hap­pen. But after years of de­clin­ing faith in gov­ern­ment, it’s hard to see what could once again startle Amer­ic­ans in­to bring­ing out the cam­paign fin­ance pitch­forks.

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