How Money Influences Campaigning and Policymaking in Washington, D.C.
Running for president of the United States is very expensive — and becoming increasingly so. The Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., estimated that the 2008 presidential campaigns cost $2.4 billion. The Obama campaign set a record for fundraising at $745 million.
Anybody who wants the Presidency so much that he’ll spend two years organizing and campaigning for it is not to be trusted with the office.
— Washington Post journalist and commentator David Broder
The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), passed in 1971 and amended in 1974 and 2002, was aimed at curbing the influence of money in presidential elections by providing public funding for campaigns in return for candidates forgoing the collection of private contributions and accepting a limit on their campaign spending. The amount of the federal grant is adjusted for inflation.
In 2008, each of the major candidates was eligible for $84.1 million. Senator John McCain accepted the federal money and its limitations, but Senator Obama declined.
Clearly, donors are critical to a candidate’s success. President George W. Bush famously told a group of wealthy donors, “Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”
While quid pro quos are illegal, to say that donors have no effect on policy is simply untrue. There is a long and well-established tradition of appointing prominent presidential campaign donors as U.S. ambassadors, who (while not always the most influential officials) hold important posts that give them influence over federal policy. Donors may be appointed to other administration positions as well, or placed on presidential advisory committees.
Money also buys access. President Bill Clinton was criticized for allowing donors to sleep overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom, but he was hardly the first or last president to grant prominent supporters and fundraisers privileged access to the halls of power.