Campaign Finance Reform: An Activity for High School Students

Activity and reading on soft money and hardball politics.

1. Begin with a quick poll of the students: Should businesses, labor unions and individuals have the right to contribute as much money as they want to political candidates running for federal offices?

2. Distribute the student reading. Tell students that perhaps it will affect the position they took. Have the class proceed with the reading.
3. Divide the class into groups and assign one of the following for discussion to each. The group should select a reporter to summarize its conclusions for the class:
  • Representative John Lewis calls soft money a "corrupting influence...on the political process." Why? Do you know of any specific examples?
  • Representative Tom DeLay argues that the Shays/Meehan bill "strips citizens of their political right and unconstitutionally attempts to regulate political speech." What arguments might there be for and against his point of view?
  • Some people think the proposed changes in campaign finance will not be as effective as reformers believe. Large soft money donations will disappear but not the influence of those who know how to use the system to raise money in other ways. What ways might they be thinking of?
  • Do you think the new campaign finance law should be judged constitutional? Why or why not?

Students will need to examine the campaign finance bill closely to imagine how individuals and groups might find such ways as the following to get around it:
1. Encourage employees, labor unions members or friends to contribute $2000 in hard money. In large organizations or groups 50 such contributors could generate $100,000, the kind of donation from one source that would get the attention of candidates and their parties.
2. Give large sums to groups that work on behalf of certain issues associated with candidates. Such groups can campaign aggressively through ads, TV commercials and telephone calls and indirectly support candidates.
3. Contribute up to $10,000 to political parties in states, money that can be used indirectly to influence state and national elections.
4. Have each group report.
5. Repeat the question asked at the beginning of the session. How many student views have remained the same? How many have changed?



Hard money is money raised and spent according to the restrictions of federal election law. The law forbids corporations and unions from making contributions in federal elections. But they can set up a separate fund - known as a political action committee or PAC - to raise voluntary contributions. The law limits contributions to candidates, parties, and PACs in federal elections. Individuals can only give $1,000 per candidate per election and $5,000 per year to a PAC. PACs can only donate $5,000 per candidate, per election. PACs and parties, candidates and committees that are involved in federal elections all have to register with the Federal Election Commission and file reports on financial activity.
Soft money came into being in 1978, when the Federal Elections Commission decided that contributions - in unregulated amounts and from unregulated sources - could be made to the national political parties for grassroots campaign efforts for state and local candidates, even when those efforts also would benefit federal candidates. Since 1988 both parties have used this loophole to support the political campaigns of their candidates running for federal offices. They have gone after big sums - up to $1 million and more. In theory the money is for "party building"; but in fact it is used to elect a candidate and is spent on everything from TV commercials to office and travel expenses.
The Democrats and Republicans raised almost $500 million to support the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and George Bush in 2000. Last year they raised tens of millions more for coming Congressional campaigns.
When huge sums of money are contributed to candidates, questions are bound to be asked about what the contributors expect to get for their donations and what effects the contributions have on officials and the democratic process. So in recent years there have been increasing efforts to change campaign finance laws that have climaxed with the passage of bills in the Senate and House. Their main provisions would
1) ban large unlimited contributions, or soft money, to political parties and require them to rely on smaller, regulated donations
2) increase the amount of "hard money" individuals may contribute to a federal candidate from $1000 to $2000 and increase from $25,000 to $37,500 the total contributions individuals may make to all federal candidates, political parties and political action committees
3) allow donors to make contributions up to $10,000 to state political parties for get-out-the-vote campaigns
4) prohibit businesses, unions and other groups from paying for broadcast ads if they refer to a specific candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days before a primary.
Pro and Con
Here are two views from the debate in the House on the Shays/Meehan bill:
"It is time to remove the corrupting influence of soft money on the political process. It is time to open up the political process and let the average person come in and participate. It is time to let all of our citizens have an equal voice. We must pass Shays-Meehan to lessen the people's growing cynicism. Soft money and big campaign contributions have polluted the political process. When people give $50,000 or $100,000 to candidates, they expect something and most of the time they get something for it....Political candidates shouldn't be up for sale to the highest bidder. Too many of us spend too much of our time dialing for dollars. We shouldn't be elected this way. This shouldn't be the essence of our democracy."
John Lewis, Democrat, Georgia
"I don't think there is one member...that is corrupt in this House....This bill doesn't contain real reform. Instead this bill strips citizens of their political right and unconstitutionally attempts to regulate political speech. The primary protection of our First Amendment is the right of average citizens to get together and to freely and fully criticize their government. Political speech is the key to political freedom. And the Shays-Meehan would radically weaken our First Amendment right by inappropriately and unwisely constraining the right to political speech."
Tom DeLay, Republican, Texas
The seven-year struggle for campaign finance reform ended on March 20, 2002 when the Senate voted its approval, 60-40. President Bush signed the bill into a law on March 27. It will go into effect after the November 2002 elections. The bills were sponsored by Republican and Democrats—in the Senate: John McCain, an Arizona Republican and Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat; in the House: Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican and Martin Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat. The two bills had support from both parties though most of it came from Democrats while most of the opposition came from Republicans.
However, the chief spokesman for opposition to the legislation, Senator Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky), announced an immediate challenge to its constitutionality in the courts on the grounds that it infringes on free speech. A day later the senator named Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel whose investigation led to President Clinton's impeachment, and Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer, to lead the legal challenge.
The two provisions of the legislation that will receive the most attention in the coming court battle are 1) the ban on "soft money," or unlimited contributions to political parties, that led to charges of undue influence such contributions gave the rich; and 2) the restriction on broadcast commercials by business, union and other groups for two months before a general election if they mention federal candidates.
Senate majority Tom Daschle (Democrat, South Dakota) argued for the soft money ban by pointing to the Enron scandal. It showed the need for reform, he said, when "half the government has to recuse itself from an investigation of a failed company because it spread so much money to so many people."
Senator Diane Feinstein (Democrat, California) defended the new law's restriction of pre-election commercials that mention candidates this way: "Independent campaigns conducted by groups that are accountable to no one threaten to drown out any attempt by candidates or by the parties to communicate with voters." Pointing to the large sums of money spent on issue advocacy ads, she added, "Most of the money is used for attack ads that the American people have come to loathe."
Opponents argue that both provisions unconstitutionally limit free speech. Senator McConnell said the legal challenge "is a mission to preserve the fundamental constitutional freedom of all Americans to fully participate in our democracy." Attorney Floyd Abrams said, "From start to finish the new law seems rooted in the notion that speech about elections is so dangerous it must be rationed or quarantined." The American Civil Liberties Union, supporting opponents, argued that the new law is too broad and would prevent legitimate issue advocacy.
The measure passed by the Senate carried within it a procedure for moving any challenges quickly to the Supreme Court (which ruled by a 5-4 vote on December 10, 2003 that the law was constitutional).


To the Teacher:

Possible subjects for further investigation include major sources of political campaign money; how candidates and political parties use the money they raise; evidence pro and con of the influence wielded by political contributors; and arguments pro and con for public financing of all political campaigns.


New York Times: 2/14, 2/15, 2/17, 3/21-24
Common Cause (
U.S. Public Interest Research Group (
The Nation (
Center for Responsive Politics (

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: