Lab Posts · Mizzou

The semester of campaign finance

As a political science student, I have always enjoyed my classes surrounding public policy discussion more than courses based on research and theory. Call me a nerd (everyone does), but I loved learning about excise taxes and the merits of balancing individual rights with the public good. In Missouri, the example is cigarettes: we have a very active tobacco industry, a low tax rate on individual purchase, and an increasingly standard public health concern in today’s society. The balance these interests strike make up the discussions I like to engage in, despite how boring it may seem to others.

Semesters past have brought me to policy arguments about texting while driving restrictions, the effectiveness of the VRA, and the necessity of term limits. I mostly love the governing tug of war between the national and state levels, which only leads to variation throughout the country. It’s this ever-changing landscape of power and decision making that draws me to politics and policy. This semester, however, has thrown me into the deep end on an issue I never expected to care too much about: campaign finance.

Money and politics have always had a scandalous relationship, and it is no secret that politicians need money to get elected. Campaign finance reformers have attempted to limit the influence of big donors in the legislative process; the goal is to reduce the potential for corruption and clean up the dirty business of politics. This sounds like a noble goal that everyone should agree with, right? With the recent ruling of McCutcheon v. FEC, it would seem that the Supreme Court disagrees. The aggregate donation limits as set by the FEC were struck down in a plurality decision, which means that you can donate to as many candidates and party committees as you want. The individual limits per donation are still in place, but by golly, you can now spend millions across the board on as many candidates as you want.

This is the third big case in which the Court has gutted the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which doesn’t sound like a huge deal. The world changes and laws become more ineffectual over time. The BCRA, though, was passed by Congress in 2002. Only 12 years later, and the only provision left to defend is outlawing “soft money” donations to parties. Campaign finance has been the subject of sweeping changes and bitter debate, and the flames are still being fanned.

The goal of this post is not to outline my own feelings on the issue; I am 22 years old, and there’s no way I can take the two months I’ve spent on the issue and create a cohesive opinion that will stand the test of time. I’m merely trying to explain the excitement that comes from learning so much about a new (to me) aspect of governing. Between a class on interest groups and another on parties and campaigns, I shouldn’t have been surprised on the focus of campaign finance. What does surprise me is that I’m not exhausted with the subject, especially when it seems never-ending.

There’s a breadth of history involved, new societal trends, inconclusive research, and new cases being decided. The Court changes, Congress changes, and the nature of interest groups. Inflation is a huge factor in campaign finance, and I usually shy away from economics-based discussions. After graduation, will I still find campaign finance so fascinating? Is this just the beginning of a life-long obsession with the issue? Will I spend days, months, years studying tax codes and FEC regulations to find the solution? Maybe, maybe not. That’s the beauty of being a graduating senior. With luck, I’ll get to take what I’ve learned in my political science classes and turn it into a career that I enjoy and help to create more effective policy surrounding these issues that excite me. Fingers crossed.


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