By Alden Mehta, V Form
The Shen Speech Prize: The Ongoing Struggle Against the Corrupting Influence of Money in Politics
THE SHEN PRIZE is awarded to the winner of a public speaking contest among Advanced Placement United States History students on the topic of democracy. The prize is given by Y.L. Shen in honor of his daughters, Ing-ie (Ava) Shen of the Class of 1988 and Ing-Chuan (Judy) Shen of the Class of 1989.
Is it possible for influence in American politics to be bought? The answer is yes. In theory, a true democracy adequately represents the voice of its people, showing no bias towards status, identity, or wealth. We should see this representation reflected in the profiles of the politicians elected through the democratic process. However, in the US, political candidates rely on generous contributions from the wealthy to fund increasingly expensive campaign efforts. Through these contributions, the rich gain a degree of undue influence in politics; instead of reflecting the concerns of their electoral bases and amplifying the voices of the general public, we see politicians prioritizing the interests of their biggest donors. Campaign funding, rather than public interest, drives their work. This hole in American democracy led to the enactment of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), authored by Senator John Pastore (D-RI), in 1974. FECA sought to remove the corrupting influence of money from politics. Ultimately, FECA did not eliminate the importance of money in politics, but was still an expansion of democracy in the US because it set a lasting standard for campaign spending and contributions and increased government regulation in order to limit the influence of money in politics.
Limiting campaign expenditures and contributions was FECA’s first step towards expanding democracy. With so much money involved in elections, having a well-financed campaign provides an advantage, for example through better advertising or a greater ability for a candidate to travel. In order to prevent election success from being correlated to financial success, FECA limited expenditures. The idea behind this is that instead of being drawn in by an incredibly well-financed campaign, the American voters would be drawn in by the candidate whose ideas they most resonated with; thus, they would elect politicians who more accurately reflected their voice. Additionally, FECA set contribution limits. As mentioned before, when the rich give massive amounts of money to campaign efforts, they are often making an investment in the hopes of gaining influence or profit. Restricting campaign contributions makes it far more difficult for the wealthy to force the hand of politicians, allowing politicians to prioritize the voice of the majority over the voices of the privileged few.
Furthermore, FECA expanded democracy through the establishment of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). One of the main reasons that politicians were able to work around previous campaign finance laws was that there was no entity to enforce the legislation. To avoid suffering from the same shortcoming, FECA “created the FEC, an independent regulatory agency empowered to enforce campaign finance laws, [and] gather and disclose campaign finance information.” Expenditure and contribution requirements are key steps in making the US more democratic, but without an agency dedicated to disclosing financial information and enforcing campaign finance laws, politicians are not held accountable for these requirements. Checks and balances are a necessary element of a functioning democracy. The investigative capability and overall supervision of the FEC makes it far more challenging for interest groups to receive preferential treatment from politicians, which means that the voice of the majority can be represented more faithfully.
To better represent the people in government, FECA set limits on expenditures and contributions, and established the FEC to disclose this information and enforce campaign finance laws. Despite the transformative impacts of FECA, however, the issue of campaign finance is not a thing of the past. As recently as 2010, in the Supreme Court case Citizens United V. The FEC, the Court equated the spending of money by a corporation to influence an election to an individual’s First Amendment right to free speech, again unleashing the harmful influence of money in politics. Cases like this threaten the core of America: its democracy. Therefore, campaign finance reform legislation like FECA is crucial to protect the voice of the people.
Alden Mehta is from Southborough, Massachusetts. This is his fourth and final year at St. Mark’s School. He plays varsity soccer and squash, serves as a Dorm Prefect and co-head of the Student Disciplinary Committee, and enjoys exploring the wide variety of courses at the school. His interests in finance and politics, along with my firm belief in the cruciality of a functioning democracy, inspired me to write this speech.
Jamie Patrick Chandler, “Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA),” in Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections, Third Edition (n.p.: Facts On File, 2022) online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=15671&itemid=WE52&articleId=167750.