Special Message to the Congress Proposing Campaign Reform Legislation
To the Congress of the United States:
The American people wield a mighty instrument of free choice as they enter the voting booth. Indispensable to the health and integrity of that process is the accountability of candidates for public office.
Campaign abuses recently publicized and of years gone by, samplings of Congressional and public opinion, expert observation, the experiences of all of us in elective office--all proclaim that the electoral process needs reform and that the accountability of candidates must be more uniformly enforced. I commend the Congress for its own recognition of this need as evidenced by recent Senate passage of two important reform measures, by the introduction of scores of reform bills, and by detailed analyses of this entire area by many Members of Congress in both Houses.
The Executive and the Congress have, therefore, a common goal: reform that works, reform that deals with the very real concerns we have in a way which improves the electoral system instead of simply coating it with the appearance of change.
I feel strongly that the reform we seek must be realistic. For example, I continue my interest in the possibilities of a six-year, one-term Presidency and four-year terms for Members of the House of Representatives. Yet, the advantages of these proposals are not so compelling as to merit driving now for a constitutional amendment. I do, however, urge further consideration of these subjects both by the Congress and the public.
Another such proposal, appealing but in my view impracticable, is the so-called Post Card Registration plan. Its goals are laudatory, but not its practical results.
Testimony before the House Election Subcommittee has already indicated that the proposal's stated objective would not be reached and the target groups not registered. In addition to being an unwarranted Federal intrusion in an area reserved by the Constitution to the States, post card registration would be an administrative nightmare and would cause chaos in existing registration systems. Of even greater importance is the open invitation to election fraud that would be inherent in so haphazard a system. I would add that periodic in-person registration by a citizen involves a personal and political commitment that I would regret very much to see us lose.
All of our solutions in the area of campaign reform must be grounded on the solid experience of nearly 200 years, not merely on the spirited rhetoric which so frequently pervades this arena.
II. LEGISLATIVE PROPOSALS
On May 16, 1973, I urged the Congress to establish a non-partisan commission on Federal election reform. This blue-ribbon commission would have been composed of political party leaders, Members of Congress and distinguished laymen. Only one House of Congress, the Senate, has focused on it. This lack of action has come at the very time that many Members of Congress and private leaders have been speaking out about the need for vigorous action against campaign abuses.
If it had been created in a timely manner, this commission would have been charged to file a public report no later than December 1st of last year. By now we would have had an authoritative, bipartisan report recommending carefully weighed reforms for Federal campaigns, and perhaps by now we could have been well on the way toward new statutes applicable to the upcoming elections this November.
It is because of this delay that I have directed the Department of Justice to work with my staff in preparing a comprehensive set of reforms for consideration of the Congress in this session. I am hopeful that these proposals, together with other approaches being advanced in Congress, will lead to vigorous debate and solid, effective reform.
Of course, we should not be concerned with Presidential campaigns alone. A massive volume of campaign contributions goes into Senate and Congressional campaigns as well. The problem faces us all, and because we are all concerned, I am anxious for the Congress and the Executive to work together in a spirit of full cooperation. For real progress to occur, we must all consider the paramount interests of the electoral system rather than parochial interests of any party or candidate.
The proposals I urge the Congress to consider as it continues to evolve its own approach fall into four major areas: campaign finances, campaign practices, campaign duration, and encouragement of candidate participation.
A. CAMPAIGN FINANCE
In recent years, political campaigns in America have become increasingly expensive. Because the need for more and more money has become acute in many Federal elections, I regard campaign financing as the most important area for reform, and the area in which reform is most urgently required.
After extensive study of a wide range of suggestions, including the many proposals developed by Congressional sources, I conclude that the single most important action to reform campaign financing should be broader public disclosure. Complete financial disclosure will provide the citizens of our country with the necessary information to assess the philosophy, personal associations, and political and economic allegiances of the candidates.
A number of statutes already exist which require some disclosure, but we can and should expand and improve the process.
Specifically, I endorse the proposal that each candidate in every Federal election be required to designate one single political committee as his authorized campaign organization, which in turn would have to designate one single depository for all campaign funds. With this single committee and single depository, accountability becomes virtually assured, and the unhealthy proliferation of political committees to pyramid and conceal campaign donations would be stopped at last,
I also strongly support the proposed requirement that every donation to these committees be specifically tied to the original individual donor, excepting only donations by a national political party organization. Other organizations could act as agents of individual contributors, but the donor himself would be required to designate the ultimate recipient of his campaign donation. This requirement would do more than facilitate disclosure; it would have the highly positive side benefit of reducing the influence of special interest groups by discontinuing their direct and often very substantial contributions to candidates. Donations to political party organizations, rather than to individual candidates, would not be interfered with and would continue to be identified as to the original donor, as existing law requires.
Even though disclosure is, I believe, the single most important prescription to deal with financing reform, I believe also that donation limits are needed on the amounts that an individual contributor could give to any Federal election campaign. I suggest that a candidate's authorized campaign committee be prohibited from accepting more than $3,000 from an individual donor in any Senate or House election, and not more than $15,000 in any Presidential election. These ceilings would apply In each campaign--primaries, runoffs. and general elections--and would include any contributions earmarked for a candidate through a national political committee. Regardless of the number of Presidential primaries, no candidate for President could receive more than $15,000 from any individual for all of the primaries combined, or more than this amount from any individual in the general campaign.
In recent years there has been a proliferation of "in kind" contributions in the form of paid campaign workers, printing supplies, the use of private aircraft, and other such non-monetary campaign assistance. Because there is as much room for abuse with "in kind" contributions as with financial ones, I believe we should prohibit all "in kind" donations by any organization other than a major political party.
Any "in kind" contribution by an individual would, of course, continue to be permissible, but would have to be disclosed as to both donor and recipient, with an open report of its reasonable value. These personal "in kind" donations would come within the same ceiling limitations as monetary contributions and would apply towards the ceiling amounts for Senate, House and Presidential elections. I also urge:
--That all donations of more than $50 be made by check or other negotiable instruments, so that large flows of cash can be at least inhibited;
--That all campaign-related expenditures of over $50 be drawn only from the central campaign treasury;
--That all loans to political committees be banned, so that we can end the practice of disguising donations as loans;
--That the donation of physical assets such as appreciated stocks be prohibited;
--And that campaign contributions from foreign accounts and foreign citizens be prohibited.
These proposals, when added to the present disclosure law that took effect in 1972, should assure American voters of the information they need to decide for themselves whether or not a candidate is financing his or her campaign honestly and in an acceptable manner.
The proposals I have offered advance the common goal of restraining campaign expenditures, but they do so without imposing arbitrary limits. It is important to note, as well, that existing law already limits the amount which candidates for Federal office may spend for campaign advertising in the communications media, the most costly part of modern campaigning.
Additional spending limits, desirable as they are at first thought, raise significant constitutional questions. Moreover, they would be unworkable because many citizens furnish direct support to a multitude of groups which in turn support candidates only because of selective positions on narrow issues. They can also be unfair because expenditure limitations can be set too low to provide a challenger with any hope of contrasting his views with those of the better known, federally. subsidized incumbent. Finally, a limit appropriate to a geographically small, congested Congressional district could be utterly inadequate for a large one. There are many other district-by-district variations that rigid nationwide spending limits could not fairly accommodate.
I conclude that full disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures, subject to existing limitations, is the best and fairest approach, one that lets the voters decide for themselves whether or not too much money is being collected and spent. There should not be a limit on the widest possible dissemination of ideas and positions on issues, but I fear that would be precisely the effect of additional spending limitations however carefully designed.
Much of the debate over campaign reform has centered around the issue of drawing down on the public treasury to pay for all or part of political campaigns. I strongly oppose direct Federal campaign financing, and I doubt very much that most citizens would favor diverting hundreds of millions of tax dollars away from pressing national needs in order to underwrite politicians' campaigns.
Neither is it right to make millions of Americans pay the cost of the political activities of individuals and parties with which they might totally disagree. This even goes beyond taxation without representation. Thomas Jefferson in the Statute of Religious Freedom said that "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical."
Moreover, if we outlaw private contributions, we will close the only avenue to active participation in politics for many citizens who may be unable to participate in any other way. Such legislation would diminish, not increase, citizen participation and would sap the vitality of both national parties by placing them on the Federal dole.
In addition, almost any "public financing" measure would give incumbents an unfair advantage. Frequently, a challenger must spend more than the incumbent in order to make his qualifications known and to counterbalance the incumbent's in-office financial advantages. But if the taxpayers are to put up the money, ceilings on such spending would have to be imposed which unavoidably would penalize the lesser-known challengers.
Through the existing tax check-off for Presidential elections and political tax credit or deduction, in 1972 the Federal Treasury was subject to the expenditure of up to $ 100 million for taxpayer support of political campaign activities. These programs, however, do not sever the crucial tie between the individual citizen and the party or candidate of his choice, and do not carry as great a threat of Federal domination of political campaigns.
I believe our Nation has already seen too many examples of how the use of tax dollars can lead to Federal control. By setting reasonable limits on campaign contributions, and by requiring broader public disclosure, we can guarantee that the American voters are fully aware of who is making the contributions; and the Nation can then leave it to the people themselves to judge the wisdom and propriety of these donations.
Another problem in this area warrants the early attention of Congress. The Internal Revenue Service has recently held that income earned from funds of political parties is taxable under the present Internal Revenue Code. This ruling has caused widespread confusion and uncertainty on the part of political campaign committees. I believe this situation was never intended by Congress and urge enactment of legislation removing any tax or potential tax on any income earned from political party funds.
While strong financing and disclosure laws are necessary, these alone will not ensure the reform we need. For most of the 20th century our campaign laws have not been, enforced. Enforcement of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, a measure riddled with loopholes, has been all but impossible, and enforcement of the Federal Election Campaign Act is difficult because of the proliferation of committees and the lack of central reporting.
Therefore, I endorse the proposal developed in the Congress to establish a Federal Elections Commission to supervise the Federal Election Campaign Act and other election measures.
This independent commission would be bipartisan and would monitor our campaign finance and disclosure laws. It would bring under the umbrella of one agency the current oversight functions of the Comptroller General, the Clerk of the House of Representatives, and the Secretary of the Senate. Membership on the commission should include representatives of the major political parties.
In its supervisory capacity, the commission would serve as a much needed central repository for election records and would have powers to subpoena documents and witnesses to fulfill its duties. It would also be able to refer campaign violations to the Justice Department for appropriate action. The work of the commission would in no way impinge upon Congressional rights and responsibilities, but would expedite the disposition of violations and provide a coordinated supervisory role in overseeing the various election laws.
B. CAMPAIGN PRACTICES
Many people have made the point that additional Federal laws are needed to deter or punish criminal, tortious or otherwise improper activities in Federal election campaigns. Existing laws deal with vote bribery, vote fraud, spurious campaign literature and other breaches of campaign ethics, but as in the area of campaign finance, these laws are unclear and have been unevenly and sometimes unfairly enforced through selective prosecution.
I have reviewed several recommendations in this area and conclude it is time for Federal statutes to spell out specifically the prohibition of certain campaign and election day practices. I propose that we prohibit three types of campaign practices:
--Activities which unreasonably disrupt the opposing candidate's campaign, such as the dissemination of false instructions to campaign workers and related disruptive activities, or which constitute a fraud upon the voters, such as rigging opinion polls, placing misleading advertisements in the media, misrepresenting a Congressman's voting record, or organizing slander campaigns.
--Activities which involve the use of force, such as the organized use of demonstrators to impede or deny entry at a campaign rally, or individual criminal actions which take on a special significance when they are done intentionally to disrupt the Federal election process.
--Those election day practices, such as stuffing ballot boxes, rigging voting machines, forging or altering ballots, or failing to count certain votes, all of which directly affect the electoral process in a most pernicious manner.
I realize that attempting to outlaw certain improper campaign activities requires particular attention to the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and assembly. With this in mind, I have asked the Department of Justice to draft a criminal statute designed to prohibit wrongful practices and to make them Federal offenses if the conduct is engaged in with the specific intent of interfering with the Federal election procedure. I invite especially thorough debate by the Congress in this difficult area.
C. CAMPAIGN DURATION
In the campaigns of 1972, there were no less than 23 separate State primaries for the Presidential contestants. The extent and duration of these proliferating primary contests have not only extended the length of campaigning but have also materially added to its expense.
I believe deeply in the statewide Presidential primary system. It affords the public a true measure of candidates who have to take their cause to different parts of the country and face the voters with their positions on crucial issues. Because I believe in the primaries but wish to bring some sense of order to the system we now have, I agree with the proposal not to hold any State Presidential primaries or nominating conventions before May 1st of an election year, and I urge that this be done.
Even though moving primary dates later in the election year is the only specific legislative action I offer to shorten campaigns, other helpful measures can be taken without Federal legislation. One way to cut down on the cost and duration of Presidential campaigns is to delay the national nominating conventions until the month of September. I urge the leaders of both national political parties to plan now for the scheduling of their 1976 conventions at this later time.
I know that delaying the nominating conventions may conflict with certain State requirements that a nominee's electors must be selected earlier than September. Therefore, I encourage the States having such requirements to change their laws to conform with this potential action by the national parties. I am reluctant to ask for Federal legislation in this area because it would intrude unduly into the right of each State to determine its election laws, but I am hopeful that the States will cooperate in this important effort. To this end, I am instructing the Department of Justice to give the States such assistance as they may desire in developing legislation to make this possible.
D. ENCOURAGING CANDIDATE PARTICIPATION
One of the major items on the agenda of campaign reform is the need to encourage qualified people to run for office and maintain a strong two-party system. We should never limit the voter's choice or discourage capable men and women from seeking to represent their fellow citizens.
I urge the Congress to examine its own benefits of incumbency which have mounted over the years. It would be inappropriate for the Executive to propose specific remedies in this Congressional area, but I suggest there is reason for concern over the marked advantages-federally funded--that Congressional incumbents now enjoy over their challengers. Such things as free mailing privileges, use of "public service" broadcast time, and the extensive staff and financial fringe benefits of office have made it progressively more difficult for competent challengers to have a fair chance in Congressional races. I readily concede that the Presidential incumbency advantage is also substantial, but there is some protection here in the constitutional limit on length of Presidential service. I urge the Congress to review this problem and to develop reforms that will assure a better balance in Congressional races.
I also propose repeal of the "equal time" provision of the Communications Act of 1934 for all Federal elections. The repeal of this provision would reduce campaign expenditures by allowing the electronic media the flexibility to provide free campaign coverage to the major political candidates, and in doing so would assist our citizens in reaching sound judgments on election day.
Finally, I have asked the Department of Justice to explore the possibility of legislation to reaffirm certain private rights of public figures so that people interested in running for public office can have greater assurance of recourse against slanderous attacks on them or their families. Landmark Supreme Court decisions have severely restricted a public figure's ability to gain redress against such grievances, but I would hope that specifically defined limits can be legislated by the Congress to prevent unscrupulous attacks on public figures. These reforms are not intended to restrict vigorous debate, but to enhance it, to help give it dignity and integrity, and to improve the prospects for good and decent people who today flinch from political participation because of their fear of slanderous attacks.
The reforms I have urged here, and that many in the Congress are seeking as well, are designed to open up our electoral process and to correct some of its most egregious abuses.
I am doubtful that any legislation can provide the panacea that some seek to guarantee absolute integrity in the electoral process. If our campaigns, like the communication of ideas in every area of our public life, are to remain free and spirited, they will frequently be caustic and hard-hitting, and some excesses and abuses will inevitably occur.
The central purpose of the reforms I suggest is to get the really important political information out to the people, to let them know as much as possible about their candidates, and to eliminate abuses which cross the boundaries of fair play.
America has had a remarkable history and tradition of campaign electioneering. Given full access to the actions and thoughts of political aspirants, the American people have shown great wisdom at the ballot box over two centuries of self-government. The reforms I propose today are intended to strengthen the will of the people by making our election process more open.
The White House,
March 8, 1974.
Note: Earlier in the day, the President met with the Cabinet to discuss matters including campaign reform.
On the same day, the White House released a fact sheet and the transcript of a news briefing on the proposed legislation by Counsellor to the President Bryce N. Harlow.
Richard Nixon, Special Message to the Congress Proposing Campaign Reform Legislation Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/256463