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Big Money and Politics

Advocates of campaign-finance reform argue that major political contributors exercise undue influence over lawmakers. But as NPR's Peter Overby reports for the Public Radio Collaboration project Whose Democracy Is It?, the influence of money on U.S. politics is nothing new.

In fact, the defining image of 19th-century Washington could be "Bosses of the Senate," a political cartoon depicting captains of industry dominating the U.S. Senate. According to political scientist Julian Zelizer of the University of New York in Albany, 100 years ago, corporate leaders looking for more political influence and political parties looking for new sources of campaign money struck up a marriage of convenience.

Perhaps the best example of this lucrative relationship comes from the 1896 presidential election. Ohio politician Mark Hanna, who ran William McKinley's successful 1896 bid for the White House, had a simple strategy: He demanded that corporations offer up a percentage of their profits. McKinley went on to spend at least $3.5 million -- an astonishing sum at the time.

But this type of excess led to a backlash. In 1904, a scandal involving corporate donors tainted President Theodore Roosevelt's campaign. The public uproar helped lead to the 1907 Tillman Act, the first major campaign-finance reform law.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.