[S]ince the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, Congress has imposed stricter regulations on money in politics. Advocates of those rules argue that they rein in corruption and increase public trust in government. But after more than three decades, has the system made a difference?
Legal scholars and social scientists say the evidence is meager, at best, that the post-Watergate campaign finance system has accomplished the broad goals its supporters asserted. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted in his opinion that no evidence was marshaled in 100,000 pages of legal briefs to show that unrestricted campaign money ever bought a lawmaker’s vote. And even after Congress further tightened the rules with the landmark McCain-Feingold law in 2002, banning hundreds of millions of dollars in unlimited contributions to the political parties, public trust in government fell to new lows, according to polls.
And what about the corporations that contributed so much of that money? A review of the biggest corporate donors found that their stock prices were unaffected after they stopped giving to the parties. The results suggest that those companies did not lose their influence and may have been giving “because they were shaken down by politicians,” said Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Columbia Law School who has studied the law’s impact. “There is no evidence that stricter campaign finance rules reduce corruption or raise positive assessments of government,”
said Kenneth Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It seems like such an obvious relationship but it has proven impossible to prove.”
In the United States, studies comparing states like Virginia with scant regulation against those like Wisconsin with strict rules have not found much difference in levels of corruption or public trust, several scholars said. Jeff Milyo, an economist at the University of Missouri, has compared states with strict bans on corporate contributions to political parties against those with no limits at all. “There is just no good evidence that campaign finance laws have any effect on actual corruption,” he said.