The Alchemy of Campaign Finance Reform: From the Federal Election Campaign Act to Citizens United

Date of Award


Document Type


First Advisor

Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez

Second Advisor

Julie Collins-Dogrul


The growing issue of campaign financing is significant to the United States democracy as: “if money is free speech, then the wealthiest people in America are those that get to speak the most freely”.[1] Campaign Finance Reform began with the 1907 Tillman Act, banning direct contributions to presidential or congressional candidates from corporations and banks. By 1972, the Watergate scandals pushed campaign finance as a forefront issue triggering a chain reaction of federal court cases to try and limit the influence of money in politics to avert quid pro quo. However since Watergate, money in politics flows at an even more exponential rate and disclosure remains limited. By taking a critical legal theory approach on analysis of Supreme Court cases, one before Watergate and one in the 21st century, an understanding of how in the midst of campaign finance debates such reforms and legislations come to be enacted that contradicts the believed neutrality of law. The examination reveals three key historical developments of: 1) legal institution in defining, facilitating, and perpetuating; 2) role of the law; 3) possibilities and consequences in attempt to use law as a remedy. The comparison of both Supreme Court cases yield what was held to be a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) during Nixon’s reelection campaign is now legally granted with Citizens United. The 5-4 decision eliminated decades of campaign finance laws, allowing corporations and associations to spend as much money as they want. The court determined that money is equivalent to First Amendment’s speech, concluding that corporations share the same political rights as citizens. As a result, this study concludes the ways in which traditional legal culture and discourse conjure their own reality as the law does not apply to society equally.

[1] Senator John McCain of Arizona in “Retro Report” by Haberman


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