Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) brought the spotlight back onto campaign finance in a hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. In the meeting, House freshman Ocasio-Cortez role-played as the proverbial “bad guy”, detailing all the ways in which members of Congress could make use of outside funds for their election campaigns
and profit off of their positions. Other members of the committee admitted without much hesitation what is well-known in Congress and beyond: There are few limits to campaign finance and many exceptions to reporting requirements.
A look at the development of outside spending and Super PAC spending in federal elections since 1990 proves that is hasn’t always been this way in American politics. Outside spending only picked up slightly during the 2008 election (first campaign of Barack Obama vs. John McCain) and didn’t become rampant until 2012 (Obama reelection campaign against Mitt Romney). 2018, the most recent election year, saw outside spending rise to over US$1 billion even though the election was only a midterm. Of that roughly one billion, US$800 million was money spend through Super PACs, which have less reporting requirements.
The data also shows that 2016 was the election year with the highest outside spending to date, when almost US$1.5 billion were spend in the first campaign of Donald Trump and opponent Hillary Clinton.