How did Congress change campaign finance law after Watergate?

Congress amended the 1971 FECA so extensively as to make it a new beginning for campaign finance reform. The Senate acted first, in 1973. It restored limits on contributions and expenditures, and it created the Federal Election Commission to "oversee and enforce" disclosure requirements and these new provisions. The Senate passed these amendments by an 82-8 majority. The House, however, did not immediately act on the bill.12

While waiting for the House to act, Senators Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Hugh Scott (R-PA) tried to add public funding to the amendments the Senate had just passed. Public funding was an old idea, but it had never been tried and was controversial. Public funding for congressional elections was so widely opposed in both parties that Kennedy and Scott quickly dropped it. They did manage to pass a public funding program for presidential elections, but most Republicans opposed it. Republicans voted for the total package, though, and the 1974 FECA amendments passed both houses by large majorities.13

Under the new law, an individual could contribute no more than $1,000 per election—the primary and the general each counting as one election—to a candidate; there was no limit on contributions to parties, but there was an aggregate total of $25,000 for all contributions. Parties and other political committees could give up to $5,000 to a single candidate with no aggregate limit. Independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate—expenditures not formally authorized by that candidate—were treated as contributions to that candidate and were subject to the same limits.14

The FECA set spending limits for House, Senate, and presidential campaigns, and limits for how much the two parties could spend in those elections. The spending limits for presidential campaigns were part of the public funding program. Congress gave the Federal Election Commission (FEC) the job of administering that program as part of its general responsibility for enforcing the FECA. Congress also strengthened disclosure requirements and gave the six-member FEC—three Republicans and three Democrats—tesponsibility for enforcing them and for making the data in disclosure reports available to the public.

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