Northern Illinois University Press

Coining Corruption

The Making of the American Campaign Finance System

Kurt Hohenstein

“A good overall evaluation on the history of money and politics in American elections.”—Choice

“A terrific book about the history of campaign finance reform and how notions of political corruption and democratic theory have evolved and shifted over the past 130 years.”—Adam Winkler, UCLA School of Law

"An eye-opening examination of the history, flaws, and bright points of America's modern political system."—The Midwest Book Review

In the wake of Watergate, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) in an effort to prevent the corruption of future elections. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), defined corruption as quid pro quo—“get for giving”—meaning Congress could only regulate the kind of corruption that had occurred if a campaign contributor received political favors from the candidate. This definition has since shaped and limited efforts at campaign finance reform, often with ironic and unintended consequences. By shifting the focus to the source and amount of contributions, the justices in the Buckley decision ignored disparities in funding and the resulting ability of particular candidates to dominate communication channels.

In Coining Corruption, legal and political historian Kurt Hohenstein provides a hitherto untold story about the successes and limitations of political reform. From 1876 until 1976, lawmakers and courts permitted regulation that potentially infringed upon freedom of speech: they understood corruption as the conversion of economic power into political power. In their view, corruption existed if a candidate’s unfettered campaign spending overwhelmed other voices and limited real deliberation. Yet, as Hohenstein shows, Buckley’s limited “quid pro quo” definition ignores these considerations.

Following the evolution of the campaign finance system through the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001 and the Supreme Court’s decisions in McConnell v. FEC (2001) and Landell v. Sorrell (2006), Hohenstein calls for a return to a broad, historical understanding of corruption. American democracy demands regulation of the sources and amounts of campaign funding in order to prevent a monopoly on the vehicles of political debate. Those interested in reform politics, public policy, constitutional history, and Congress will appreciate this groundbreaking study.

(2007) 320 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-87580-377-7
cloth $45.00

Kurt Hohenstein, who served as a Research Assistant on the National Commission on Election Reform, is Assistant Professor of History at Winona State University.

Visit the author's website for more information about him and his work.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Ignoring History and the Conundrum of Reform
Chapter 1: The Beginnings of the Campaign Finance System
Chapter 2: Funding the National Interest
Chapter 3: The Progressive Promise Derailed
Chapter 4: Managing the Marketplace of Ideas
Chapter 5: Campaign Finance "Reform" in the New Deal
Chapter 6: Professionalizing Politics and the "De-political" Court
Chapter 7: Coining Corruption
Conclusion: From Buckley to BCRA and Beyond
Works Cited

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-377-7
cloth $45.00