Happy Birthday Richard Nixon — RIP campaign finance reform?


Tonight, at Washington's stately Mayflower Hotel, just a few blocks from Sunlight's offices, family and former aides to the late President Richard Nixon will gather to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth in Yorba Linda, Calif. Who knew that it would also be an occasion for campaign finance reform nostalgia?

It was actually Nixon who, in 1971, signed into law the Federal Election Campaign Act, limiting the amount of money that could be donated to congressional and presidential campaigns and requiring that those donations be reported. And he was also responsible for the strengthening of that law: The Watergate scandal that drove the nation's 37th president to resign on Aug. 9, 1974, in the middle of his second term, also prompted Congress to pass more regulations on campaign contributions and to create the Federal Election Commission. 

Among the catalysts for the 1974 revisions to FECA was the revelation that Robert Vesco, a flamboyantly corrupt financier seeking to quash a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, had delivered a suitcase full of $250,000 in cash to Maurice Stans, Nixon's campaign finance chairman. About $70,000 went to pay the Watergate burglars.

How quaint those numbers seem after an election in which 156 individuals or entities gave at least $1 million apiece to their favorite candidates and causes and one couple alone was responsible for $92 million in donations. All told, Sunlight's Follow the Unlimited Money tracker found, outside interests pumped $1.4 billion into the 2012 election cycle. More than $300 million came from groups that will never have to report their donors because of their tax-exempt status. 

And it's all perfectly legal. Sunlight has elsewhere documented how lawmakers, lawyers and judges have spent much of the nearly four decades since the Watergate scandal chipping away at the campaign finance law. And we've provided a handy timeline to illustrate how much the political giving landscape has changed since the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United opened the door for unlimited contributions by corporate entities. 

"There will be scandals," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the authors of the campaign finance reform law that the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling undercut, told PBS in an interview last year. "There is too much money washing around political campaigns today."

So as we celebrate Nixon's 100th, let's ponder: Who will be the next politician we have to thank for campaign finance reform?

(Video credit: C-SPAN)