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Radio Address About a Special Message to the Congress Proposing Campaign Reform Legislation.

March 08, 1974

Good afternoon:

The centerpiece of American democracy is our process of electing men and women to public office. That process is now the subject of a spirited national debate. From the Congress, from election analysts, and most importantly, from the people themselves have come a steady stream of proposals. They are varied in nature, but unified in purpose; all of them call for reform.

We need sensible reforms, reforms that perform instead of preach, reforms that will work because they are workable, and reforms that will last because they make good common sense to people.

Ten months ago, I spoke out on the need for campaign reform. I asked the Congress to create a commission to fashion the remedies that we need. The Congress has failed to act on that proposal. Consequently, today I am sending to the Congress a comprehensive set of proposals to get the job done.

These proposals present reform that will work, not reform that will sugar-coat our problems with the appearance of change or rob our people of their basic freedoms. These proposals address four major areas: campaign finances, campaign practices, campaign duration, and encouragement of candidate participation.

Of all of these, campaign financing is the central concern with which we must deal as we move to improve our electoral process. It provides the best example of our need to deal with the causes of campaign abuses rather than simply with the symptoms of those abuses.

Each year elections become more expensive. In 9 months of 1972 alone, it has been estimated that the Presidential campaign cost $100 million, spent by the two candidates and their committees.

Many millions more were spent on Congressional races. Many of these costs cannot be avoided, because Americans put a premium on knowing what their candidates stand for, seeing them in their hometowns, meeting them face to face.

The answer to this is not artificial limits on campaign expenditures by candidates. These limits would not only raise constitutional questions, they would also be unrealistic and, in many situations, unfair.

In a free society we should never put a ceiling on the open and vigorous communication of ideas, specifically when that communication helps to inform the voter's choice. Instead, we should deal with the growing influx of money into politics by establishing broad and rigorously enforced financial disclosure requirements.

With expanded disclosure, our voters would then have the necessary information to assess the philosophy, the personal associations, the political and economic allegiances of the candidates.

To this end, I have proposed that each candidate have only one political committee as his or her authorized campaign organization, and that committee would have to designate one depository for all campaign funds.

Now, this measure would insure full accountability for campaign finance and eliminate the unhealthy proliferation of political committees which are used to conceal campaign donations.

I have also proposed that each individual donor be specifically tied to his campaign contribution. By linking donations to the original donor, the influence of special interest groups in election campaigns would be sharply reduced.

Beyond requiring greater public disclosure of campaign contributions, I also ask for limits on the size of donations to Federal election campaigns. No contribution above $3,000 could be made by an individual donor to a House or Senate election campaign. For Presidential elections, a ceiling limit of $15,000 would apply, and the need for small contributions would rise accordingly. We would also put an end to contributions from organizations which are hidden in the form of services, such as the donated use of private aircraft, the loan of campaign workers whose salaries are paid by third parties, and other types of nonmonetary contributions.

We should stop the large flow of cash in campaigns by requiring that all donations over $50 be made by check or other negotiable instrument. We should ban all political loans in order to end the practice of disguising donations as loans. And finally, I have proposed that all campaign contributions from foreign accounts and foreign citizens be flatly prohibited.

Along with full disclosure, these requirements would breathe fresh air into political campaigns. Unlike arbitrary limitations on campaign expenditures, they would fulfill the right of the American citizen to learn about all candidates and the views which they seek to communicate.

I am also taking this opportunity today to share with you my reasons for opposing a raid on the public treasury to pay for political campaigns. This is popularly called public financing.

In reality, it is compulsory financing by the American taxpayer of political campaigns. It is unhealthy, it reduces our freedoms, and it would have the effect of undermining the very foundation of our democratic process.

Underwriting political campaigns from the United States Treasury would not only divert tax dollars from pressing national needs but would also require taxpayers to sponsor political candidates and parties with which they might totally disagree.

This procedure would take your money--no matter what your political preference--and distribute it to candidates for whom your voluntary support might be withheld.

In effect, that process would be taxation without representation. It would, in other words, violate the very precept for which our Nation declared its independence and fought a war for that independence. You work too hard for your money to have it spent on candidates or in campaigns that you don't know about or don't care about or even oppose.

Thomas Jefferson, who so eloquently committed to words the spirit of the Revolution, said, at another time, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical."

The courts have already struck down this type of financing when labor unions have tried to make campaign contributions from compulsory dues, and I see no reason now to place this same type of burden on the back of the American taxpayer. One thing we don't need in this country is to add politicians to the Federal dole.

Public financing could give incumbents unfair advantages over relatively unknown but capable challengers, and at this time in our history, this Nation, all of our legislative bodies--particularly the Congress of the United States--needs new blood, new leadership.

Moreover, it would close off the one avenue that hundreds of thousands of citizens choose to participate in--the electoral process.

Our goal should be to disclose donations, not to foreclose them. We need to open up the election process, not put it in the closed hands of Washington bureaucrats.

I have also proposed reform in the area of campaign practices. We must firmly move to prohibit the organized and intentional disruption of a candidate's campaign by his opponents as well as to prevent the use of tactics which impede or deny entry at a campaign rally.

I recall in the campaign of 1968 the violent demonstrations that took place where Senator Humphrey and I were concerned, demonstrations which had the effect finally in some cases of denying us the right to speak.

Once and for all, we should move to end such anti-democratic practices as stuffing ballot boxes, the rigging of voting machines, other practices which affect the electoral process in the most pernicious manner.

The third general area of reform in which I have submitted proposals to the Congress deals with the length of campaigns. Campaigns should be true tests of a candidate's appeal to the voters, rather than endurance contests.

To shorten Presidential campaigns, I have recommended moving primary elections later into the election year, and I have urged both national parties to schedule their 1976 nominating conventions in September instead of in July or August.

Now, that would still provide for a national campaign of approximately 2 months. When you consider, for example, that in Great Britain a campaign is scheduled for no longer than 3 weeks, it would seem that a e-month campaign in the United States would be adequate for the purpose of having each candidate get his views across to the people.

Finally, we must take steps to encourage more good people to run for public office. While closely observing constitutional requirements, I believe that we can reaffirm a public figure's private rights so that people interested in running for public office can have greater assurance of recourse against slanderous attacks on them or their families. Good and decent men and women should not have to flinch from political participation because of their fear of such attacks.

We have here, incidentally, a constitutional problem, which must eventually, probably, be decided by the courts. But unfortunately, some libel lawyers have interpreted recent Supreme Court decisions, particularly the decision in Sullivan v. The New York Times, as being virtually a license to lie where a political candidate, a member of his family, or one of his supporters or friends is involved.

This is wrong. It is necessary that a change be made so that a candidate who runs for public office knows that he has recourse in case of such an attack which is totally untrue and would otherwise give him a right to sue for libel.

Other measures which would encourage a wider choice for the voters by reducing the cost of campaigning include the repeal of the equal time provision of the Communications Act, allowing for more free broadcast coverage of candidates.

I have also urged the Congress to examine its own benefits of incumbency which have mounted over the years, so competent challengers have a more even chance in House and Senate campaigns.

I am aware of the great interests and expertise that the Congress possesses in the election process, and I am grateful for the counsel, the recommendations which have been contributed to me by several Members of Congress in preparing my remarks on this occasion and the legislation that will be presented. It is fully my intention to work closely with the Congress, with leaders of both parties, to achieve progress in improving the conduct of our campaigns. Because we all share the same interests and the same goal, we will work together to achieve that goal.

If our campaigns, like the communications of ideas in every arena of public life, are to remain free and spirited, they will frequently be caustic and hard-hitting. That is the case in all free countries. Some excesses and abuses will inevitably occur, but if we are guided by a sense of realism, we can go far to improve the process.

More than anything else, it is my desire to open up the election process, eliminate the abuses which cross boundaries of fair play, and to let the American people know as much as possible about their candidates. No instrument of force is as mighty as the power of the ballot in the hand of a free citizen. This is the proud and remarkable record of our election tradition. The American people have never failed us when presented fully with the actions and thoughts of political aspirants.

The reforms I have put forward today may not provide the panacea that some seek for all the abuses, but they do provide the basis for the workable progress that we do all seek.

Thank you and good afternoon.

Note: The President spoke at 12:30 p.m. from a room adjoining the Oval Office at the White House. The address was broadcast live on nationwide radio.

Richard Nixon, Radio Address About a Special Message to the Congress Proposing Campaign Reform Legislation. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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