The Forty-Year War on Money in Politics: Watergate, FECA, and the Future of Campaign Finance Reform

47 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2017 Last revised: 24 Feb 2017

Date Written: December 1, 2016


This article examines the 40 year history of the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms. Since Watergate, federal campaign finance law has been based on a model of low contribution limits and unlimited expenditures. That long experience provides sufficient evidence to ask and answer a fundamental question: Are we better off today than we were before the Watergate era campaign finance reforms? The thesis of this article is that the answer to that question is no. In fact, in many respects, the current system is worse than that which prevailed before Watergate.

This article concludes that contrary to the polarizing rhetoric that surrounds the national debate over campaign finance law, the historical record indicates that both reformers and their opponents offer reasonable policy alternatives to the dysfunctional system that prevails today. For example, twentieth-century political history at the federal level and ongoing experience at the state level demonstrate that a deregulated campaign finance system does not lead inevitably or necessarily to plutocracy. At the same rate, however, Canada’s experience with expenditure caps over the last 40 years shows that robust political debate and high levels of incumbent turnover are possible even within a comprehensively regulated campaign finance environment. Thus, the historical record makes clear that either approach — comprehensive regulation or sweeping deregulation — is preferable to the hybrid campaign finance system that governs American elections today.

Keywords: Election law, campaign finance, Federal Election Campaign Act, Watergate, legal history

Suggested Citation

Gaughan, Anthony J., The Forty-Year War on Money in Politics: Watergate, FECA, and the Future of Campaign Finance Reform (December 1, 2016). 77 Ohio State Law Journal 791 (2016). Available at SSRN:

Anthony J. Gaughan (Contact Author)

Drake University - Law School ( email )

27th & Carpenter Sts.
Des Moines, IA 50311
United States
5152712060 (Phone)


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