Timeline: The Best Government Money Can Buy

A short, shady history of how American elections are bought and paid for.

1758 George Washington’s successful campaign for the Virginia House of Burgesses spends £39 on booze to “treat” voters on Election Day ($8,130 in 2011 dollars).
1800 Thomas Jefferson hires a writer to smear President John Adams as “mentally deranged” and a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” Propagandist is imprisoned under the Sedition Act; Jefferson wins the election.

President Andrew Jackson advocates rewarding loyalists with political office. Sen. William Marcy later notes approvingly, “To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.”

Thomas Nast/Harpers Weekly/Wikimedia

1867 In America’s first federal campaign finance reform law, Congress makes it illegal to pressure workers at naval yards for political contributions.
1872 Railroad financier Jay Cooke gives $50,000 to the Republican Party—25 percent of its budget. A historian writes of President Ulysses S. Grant, “Never before was a candidate placed under such great obligation to men of wealth.”
1875 Mark Twain: “I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.”
1883 Congress prohibits soliciting civil servants for political contributions.
1896 President William McKinley’s campaign manager hits up corporations for donations sized “according to [their] stake in the general prosperity of the country.”
1906 Accused of fundraising improprieties, President Theodore Roosevelt calls for a ban on all corporate contributions “for any political purpose,” leading to passage of the Tillman Act (named after white supremacist Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman).
1911 Congress introduces individual spending limits for federal campaigns.
1943 After Congress bans political giving by unions, the Congress of Industrial Organizations forms the first PAC, skirting the restrictions by collecting campaign money outside of regular dues.

VP candidate Richard Nixon delivers his “Checkers” speech, defending more than $18,000 in secret donations: “Every penny of it was used to pay for political expenses that I did not think should be charged to the taxpayers.”


1971 President Nixon tells his chief of staff to tell donors, “Anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000.” Dwayne Andreas, CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, later delivers $100,000 to Nixon’s secretary and helps fund the Watergate break-in.
1974 Congress imposes stricter limits on individual contributions and outside expenditures and sets up the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
1976 Buckley v. Valeo strikes down some of the new restrictions, finding that election spending is constitutionally protected speech.
1979 Newfound loopholes permit corporations and unions to give unlimited “soft money” to the Republican and Democratic national committees for “party-building activities.”
1991 Five senators, including Sen. John McCain, are found to have advocated on behalf of Charles Keating’s failing S&L after receiving a combined $1.3 million in campaign money.
1996 A California Buddhist temple illegally gives at least $65,000 to the Democratic National Committee on behalf of wealthy donors. The scandal prompts the DNC to return $3 million in donations.
1997 The Clinton administration releases a list of 938 overnight guests at the White House, many of whom slumbered in the Lincoln Bedroom. Others received coffee, golf outings, or morning jogs with the president. All told, these donors gave some $10 million to Democrats in the 1996 election.

The McCain-Feingold Act bans soft money in federal elections and bans the use of corporate or union funds to make ads about candidates in the weeks before an election.

Aaron Webb/FlickrAaron Webb/Flickr

2005 GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay is indicted for funneling corporate money through the RNC to Texas Republicans. More than five years later, he is convicted of money laundering and sentenced to three years in prison. He’s out on bail while appealing.
2006 Lobbyist Jack Abramoff admits trading golf junkets, meals at his DC restaurant, and campaign contributions for political favors. President George W. Bush and GOP leaders rush to dump donations linked to him.
2007 The Supreme Court sides with lawyer James Bopp (who will later bring the Citizens United case) and eases limits on corporate and union-backed ads close to an election, so long as they’re not for or against candidates (wink, wink).
2010 Citizens United ruling allows corporations and unions to advocate for or against candidates at any time. Two months later, in Speechnow.org v. FEC, an appeals court strikes down limits on contributions to independent-expenditure shops. The super-PAC is born.

As super-PACs proliferate, the FEC approves Stephen Colbert’s Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. Colbert exalts, “Today, we put liberty on layaway.”

Brian Hogg/FlickrBrian Hogg/Flickr

More MotherJones reporting on Dark Money


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