The assassination of President James Garfield
by someone who thought he had been promised a job in the Garfield Administration
generated new pressure for a change in the way people were appointed to
federal positions. Prior to this, people were appointed by what was called
patronage, largely in response to the financial or other contributions
they made to the presidential campaign. This was known as the Spoils
The influence of money in political campaigns had become especially strong in the post-Civil War era because of the concentration of new corporate wealth in the industrial economy. This type of corruption led to the rise of the Progressive movement which opposed patronage and other corrupt practices.
The Pendleton Act or Civil Service Act established a system of Civil Service exams through which government jobs were to be filled on the basis of qualifications, not party affiliation. This came to be known as the Merit System. At the time 10 percent of federal jobs were filled by examination. Today, 90 percent are so filled.
In the 1896 election, the Republican party
spent over 16 million dollars--which was a very large amount of money at
the time. The Presidential campaign between William McKinley and William
Jennings Bryant was wrought with accusations of bribery and unethical contributions.
Mark Hanna, a close friend of McKinley's, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and chief fund raiser, devised a system of quotas for contributions from large corporations. "Most of McKinley's six to seven million in campaign funds came because Hanna levied regular assessments on all businesses of consequence throughout the country." (Malbin, 224) In exchange, the administration strongly supported the big business agenda. For example, it fought the establishment of silver coinage, supported protective tariffs, and--on behalf of the railroads--supported the replacement of stocks with bonds for the financial backing of corporations.
The rumors and scandals generated during this campaign fed a growing distrust of campaign funding, and led to the issue of reform having a prominent place in the 1904 Presidential campaign.
By 1904, campaign finance reform had been
gathering steam for several years. Many state legislatures enacted campaign
finance legislation, such as those requiring disclosure of contributions,
contributors, and expenditures. They also enacted anti-bribery and anti-kickback
Clean government was a major theme of Theodore Roosevelt's Presidential campaign. Although he was a Republican and a major recipient of campaign funds, Roosevelt was reform-minded and adopted many Progressive ideas.
Elihu Root, a prominent Progressive reformer and friend of Roosevelt's, once said: "Political parties are every year contracting greater debts to men who can furnish the money to perform the necessary functions of campaign warfare." (Sikes, 107) Root later went on to found the National Publicity Law Association (NPLA), and gave power and a name to the cause of campaign finance reform.
Roosevelt used his Presidential stature
to influence public opinion and to persuade Congress. The NPLA and other
grassroots organizations also pushed for reform. The result of their efforts
was the enactment of the Tillman Act of 1907. The act specifically
prohibited direct contributions from corporations and businesses to political
parties and election committees. It was the first law on the books to specifically
address campaign funding on the federal level.
Unfortunately for those who wished for an incorrupt government, this law was easily circumvented. Businesses and corporations would give their employees large bonuses with the understanding that the bonus would be given to a company "endorsed" candidate. The corporations thus found a loophole, gained political access, and received an additional tax deduction for "employee benefits."
Progressive reformers defined the lack of campaign finance disclosure as another major problem with the electoral system. In order to know to whom legislators might be beholden, the public needed to know from where their respective funding was coming. Voters also needed to be made aware of campaign spending, in order to give them assurance that campaign funds were being spent legitimately. In response to this, the Publicity Act of 1910 was enacted. It required full disclosure of all monies spent and contributed during federal campaigns.
In addition to general elections, reformers were also concerned with primary elections. This was especially true with reformers in the new Western and old Northern Republican States who resented the Southern Democrats' grip on that region of the country. The only elections that mattered in the South were the Democratic primaries. This was due to the fact that no self-respecting Southern gentleman would belong to the pro-reconstructionist Republican party. Outnumbered in Congress, the Southern Democrats were unable to defeat the 1911 amendments to the Tillman and Publicity Acts which extended the jurisdiction of these acts to primary elections.
The first federal campaign finance legislation
was now on the books. However, the laws were ineffective and "with
rare exceptions, Attorneys General simply did not enforce the law."
(Alexander, vi, 2) Loopholes were easily found, such as the "election
time bonuses" of large corporations.
When the laws were tested, the Supreme Court found the 1911 amendments unconstitutional. Ironically, the case at hand involved a Northern Republican primary race for the U.S. Senate, involving the popular businessman, Henry Ford. After Ford lost the primary election, due to massive campaign expenditures and advertising by his opponent, Ford asked the Attorney General to prosecute based on the 1911 amendments.
In the subsequent case, U.S. v. Newberry (256 U.S. 232), the court held that the amendments were invalid because neither parties nor primaries were mentioned in the Constitution. Having seen the confusion of the party system in England, the Founders had envisioned a single party system, built on consensus and representing all interests. A true two-party system did not emerge on the national level in the U.S. until 1828.
With a strict Constitutional interpretation, the court considerably weakened the campaign finance legislation then on the books.