printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Campaign Finance: Contributions 101

Vice Chair Ellen L. Weintraub, Federal Election Commission; Press Officer Judith Ingram, Federal Election Commission
Washington, DC
October 10, 2018



WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 10, 2018, 1:00 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: All right, I think we’re all good. All right, good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center, everyone. It’s always good to see our journalists coming in, and we’re happy to have you in here. We’re also very, very happy and thankful for the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, for coming in and speaking, Vice Chair Ellen Weintraub coming and giving an explanation on kind of the election process. Today, the order of events is essentially going to be I’ll give a basic introduction, then I’ll bring up Vice Chair Weintraub to speak, give a basic introduction and speak on the topic a little bit. And then Judith Ingram, the press officer at the Federal Election Commission, will come up and explain some of the data resources available on their website and some of the information that journalists can find there, show a bit about how to navigate there and what tools are available.

Ellen L. Weintraub has been a commissioner on the United States Federal Election Commission since 2002 and has served twice as its chair. During her tenure, Commissioner Weintraub has served as a consistent voice for meaningful campaign finance law enforcements and robust disclosure. The FEC is the independent regulatory agency charged with administering and enforcing the federal campaign finance law. The FEC has jurisdiction over the financing of campaigns for the U.S. House, Senate, Presidency, and the Vice Presidency. Federal campaign finance law covers three broad subjects: Public disclosure of funds raised and spent to influence federal elections, restrictions on contributions and expenditures made to influence federal elections, and the public financing of presidential campaigns. With that said, I would like to invite up our speaker, our principle, Vice Chair Ellen L. Weintraub.

MS WEINTRAUB: Thank you. Well thank you, everyone. I thank you for the gracious introduction. Thank you all for coming. I thought what I would do is spend a few minutes just talking about what the Federal Election Commission does and what – how our law is set up on campaign finance. It’s an unusual election commission, unlike virtually any other election commission that I know of in the world. We do not register voters, we don’t count ballots, we don’t print ballots, we don’t monitor polling places. We are all about the money. We are all about administering and enforcing a set of laws about how our campaigns are financed. They are in general privately financed, but it is all publicly disclosed, and we’re in charge of making sure that that happens.

So the administration of the election takes place at the state and local level, and that’s done by state and local officials, largely by professionals who are employed year-round by government agencies at the state and local level. So what we do is – as I said, we’re all about the money. We are – we monitor how much money is raised and spent, and there is a fair amount of money to monitor in – so far in 2018, candidates for the House of Representatives have raised over $1 billion. Candidates for the Senate have raised $626 million. So between the two of them, the House and Senate candidates, it’s roughly $1.7 billion that’s been raised so far. Some of that’s been spent, some of that they are saving up to spend in the last few weeks before the election when things really get heated.

And then there are also outside spending groups that are not formally affiliated with any of the candidates or the party committees, and they have become an increasing force in our elections and so far have spent over $600 million in this election. And just to give you a sense of what the overall elections tend to cost, in 2016, which was the last presidential cycle, $6.4 billion, billion with a “B”, was spent by federal candidates, political parties, other political committees and outside groups. Usually the midterms, there is – when the presidency is not up, not as much money is raised and spent. So in 2014, $3.8 billion dollars was spent – again, by federal candidates, political parties, political groups, and outside spenders.

Now I know that sounds like an enormous amount of money, and it is an enormous amount of money, but I think you have to take into account the overall size of the country and the overall size of the economy. So one comparison that I always like to look at is, roughly a week before the election, on October 30th, we’re going to celebrate Halloween. Halloween is a children’s holiday, the kids go door to door and they ask for candy, and people have parties and put up decorations. And in 2016, when we spent $6.4 billion on campaign activity, as a nation we spent $8.4 billion on Halloween. So that’s a lot of candy corn, probably not as healthy as spending money to promote democracy in our country, but we did spend more on that. And because we are a very romantic country, on Valentine’s Day that year, we spent almost $20 billion, which again, lots of candy. But that’s very sweet. I kind of like that, that we spend a lot of money on Valentine’s Day.

I think it’s also important to know what we spend the money on, because when you hear amounts like that, I’m sure people wonder what in the world do they spend that money on. The biggest category of spending is on advertising, getting the message out. Second biggest is probably staff. The candidate – the campaigns spend a lot of money raising funds. Raising all that money costs money to do. And I think it’s very important to note that all of this, because of the laws that the FEC administers, is reasonably transparent. We know exactly who’s giving the money and where the – what’s the money is being spent on. It is not being spent to actually give money to voters. We have a very low incidence of vote buying in this country. So I know when people from other countries hear numbers like that, they might think, “Oh, well, they must be handing the money out. That’s how they spend that much money.” That is not what the money is being spent on in our elections.

Now, one of the reasons why so much money is spent is because there are no limits on campaign spending under our law. And that is a result of the way the Supreme Court interprets our First Amendment, which protects not only freedom of the press but also freedom of speech. And the Supreme Court has been particularly protective of free speech in the political context. They think it is incredibly important that every citizen has the right to speak out on politics, to criticize the government, to speak truth to power, and the court is very protective of that and feels that any kind of limit on how much politicians can spend would inherently limit the amount of political speech that goes on. And that’s why our courts have determined that there can be no spending limits.

Now, there are contribution limits. There are limits on how much you can give to candidates in this country and limits on where that money can come from. And that’s because the court has recognized that there is the potential for corruption when people are allowed to give unlimited amounts of money to candidates. So there are limits on contributions. There are no limits on spending. The candidates and the political groups are only limited by how much money they can raise in terms of how much money they can spend.

The commission itself is a six – it’s supposed to be a six-person body. Right now we’re down two commissioners, so we have four, which is enough for a quorum. And by law, no more than three can be of any one political party. So as you probably know, we have a very strong two-party system in this country. There are minor parties, but the two dominant parties really do dominate the – certainly the election of candidates and the raising and spending of money. And in order that neither party be able to control the apparatus of the election commission, by law, no more than three of the six commissioners can come from one political party. And it takes four votes to get pretty much anything done. So if there’s a seat empty and it’s three to two one way or the other, it doesn’t really help one side or the other because you still need four votes to pass rules, or to issue penalties, or to have any kind of enforcement function. So it all has to be done on a bipartisan basis, and that is – it can be both a strength and a weakness of our system. It is – it’s a strength that nothing can be done on a partisan basis. Sometimes we disagree and then it becomes a weakness because we can’t get as much done as we might like to.

So what are the contribution limits? Right now – and these get adjusted for inflation – an individual can give no more than $2,700 to any one candidate for any one election. And there’s usually a primary election where the candidates are nominated, and then there’s the general election where the candidates compete against each other. So it’s $2,700 for the primary, $2,700 for the general. Individuals can give up to $33,900 to party committees during a calendar year. There is another $10,000 limit on contributions to state and local parties, and individuals can give up to $5,000 to political committees that are not affiliated with the candidates.

So there are a variety of limits, again, to ensure that nobody can give so much money that it can have a corrupting influence on the process. There are also sources that are prohibited. Corporations and labor unions are not allowed to give out of their treasury funds to candidates or party committees. Federal government contractors are also barred as well as foreign nationals, and foreign nationals are not allowed to give at the federal, state, or local level. And although we have general jurisdiction usually just at the federal level, when it comes to the foreign national ban we have jurisdiction over that or ensuring that that is maintained at the state and local level as well.

A little wrinkle on that, green card holders, people who are legal residents here although they’re not citizens, they are allowed to make campaign contributions, although they can’t vote. There are also bans on contributions in the name of another. We have a transparency-based system, so you can’t give money to somebody else and have them make the contribution so that it looks like the wrong person is identified as being the true source of the funds. So that is completely illegal, and also for similar reasons cash contributions are limited to $100. Sometimes campaigns will have small-dollar fundraising events where they basically pass a hat around the room, and people will throw a few dollars in. But there’s a limit on cash contributions, again, to make sure that we know who’s giving the money.

And there are requirements that we enforce for how often the reports are filed. They are filed in real time. Any candidate or political committee has to register with us and file regular reports. They’re filed – some groups file monthly, other groups file quarterly. In the off-years when there’s no election it might be only semi-annually, but they are filed on a regular basis up to the date of the election. Candidates have ongoing reporting obligations right up until about 24 hours before the election to make sure that the public is informed about who the supporters are of any particular candidate.

And campaign ads have to run disclaimers, again, so people know where the information is coming from, and then they can make their own judgments about which sources of information they trust, which candidates they feel comfortable with, in part based on who is supporting those candidates. And this real-time disclosure makes it – makes that kind of information available to candidates – to the voters during the election cycle.

So there’s a ton of information on our website right now, and our press officer, Judy Ingram, is going to sort of go through that with you so that you can find that information. Anybody in the world who has access to a computer can find out who is providing the money behind political campaigns in the United States. It’s designed mostly for the benefit of our voters, but anybody can find out this information. It’s all publicly available.

I think this is probably going to be a very expensive election for a midterm. We’ve already seen that independent spending, spending by outside groups, is up over previous years. There was a study done recently that showed that 2.2 million advertisements have already run as of the end of September, totaling nearly $1 billion just for congressional races and gubernatorial races. And that is up 70 percent from the similar point in 2014, the last time we had a midterm election. So there seems to be a pretty big uptick in advertising. Outside group spending is up 85 percent for congressional and gubernatorial races over a similar point in the 2014 election.

So I think this is – usually the conventional wisdom is that presidential years are a lot more expensive than these midterm elections, but it seems like almost every election cycle somebody is saying that either the control of the House or the Senate is up for grabs, and literally that’s always true because the entire House of Representatives is up for re-election every two years. So every election the entire House of Representatives gets – every single member is up for election or re-election, and the Senate, a third of the Senate is up. So really control of the chambers could switch in any election. This is another election where people are talking a lot about whether control is going to switch of one or the other chamber, and that drives more spending, when people think that. That is the thing that is most likely to increase spending in an off year, is if people think that control will – party control of one house or another might switch.

So we don’t obviously have the final numbers yet because it hasn’t all been – they’re still spending and will spend at a good clip through the election, but I think we’re looking at another heavy spending election year, and the FEC will be very busy making sure that that information is available to the public and to all of you.

So I’m going to pass the baton to Judy so that she can show you exactly how this information is made available, and how you can find it.

MS INGRAM: Apologies. Okay, is it up? Good afternoon. I’m really glad you could come for a taste of what you can find on our website. As I’ve told Bryce, we at the press office of the FEC are always available for tutoring. We’d be happy to meet with you personally, take phone calls or emails if you have questions about how to find data on the website, because there’s quite a bit here and today we have time for just a very short tour.

So the website, the URL is And you’ll see up top next to the seal that there are three basic buckets of information: campaign finance data, which is what we’re interested in today; help for candidates and committees, which guides our filers to be able to comply with the law and regulations; legal resources, which includes enforcement cases that have been resolved; rule makings, advisory opinions, which are commission responses to requests for formal legal guidance; and then “about” is logistical contact information, biographical information, and historical information about the commission itself.

So starting with campaign finance data, I wanted to take you to an election page to get an overview of what an election in a single district looks like and the kind of information you can find on the website. So on the right-hand top, you can see “find election,” “search by state or zip code.” And I thought we would take a look at one of the most expensive elections going right now, which is the Texas Senate election.

So you’ll see a map here that shows the various districts, electoral districts in Texas, but the Senate race is a statewide race. So we’ll go to “show all,” and we’ll see all the candidates who have been involved up to now. The two top candidates are the ones that we are most interested in: Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz. And you can see some analytical data further down on the page on contribution size, and then on ad spending, which is independent expenditures. This is a very carefully watched race because Texas tends to elect Republican candidates, and the Democratic candidate has I think surprised quite a number of people with how strong a campaign he’s been able to run against the incumbent.

For a House race, I thought we should take a look at Colorado 6, which, again, is one of the most expensive races this time around. This district is considered a bellwether of who would be taking control of the House. And we have the top two again. The Republican is Mike Coffman and the Democrat – the Democratic candidate is Jason Crow. You can see the total receipts, the middle column, total disbursements, and cash on hand. This is as of June 30th, which was the closing date for our last reporting period. The numbers are likely to be quite a bit higher. Down below again you have independent ad spending, and I’m going to show you some different ways of finding comparative numbers on the independent expenditures. Outside spending is huge in this race.

Going back to the main campaign finance disclosure portal, you can find individual contributions either by going to the raising section, which shows you all receipts, or there’s a special individual contributors section. This is done in two-year – the two-year election cycle. You can export all of this information into Excel files, where you can sort it and use it for analysis, and I’ll show you another place to find individual contributions a little bit later.

This is a new website. It’s still developing. And one of the features is that you can take a look at all disbursements that are broken down by purpose, by the name of the vendor, and again, this can be exported into an Excel file.

We’re coming up to a filing deadline, October 15th at 11:59 p.m. All of the committees that file to us will be sending in their reports electronically except for the smallest ones. Those reports are available as soon as they hit our server. You’ll find them – you can look up by candidate or you can see who’s been the most recent to file by going to the filing section, taking a look at all filings, and they line up chronologically.

Note on the upper-left-hand side the difference between processed filings, which have been coded so they can be included in our databases, and the raw filings, which you can also see as soon as the hit the – our server but they will not – the data there can take a couple of days to be included in all of our databases.

We have an auxiliary site which I find very useful for some visual portrayals of what’s going on in campaign finance. It’s And we have not yet brought over all of the features from here to our new site. But I wanted to point you in particular to our maps. The presidential election map, which you may want to return to in a couple of years, shows – these circles show the amount of contributions coming in. This is obviously from 2016. As you can see, the differentiation among states and then if you drill down to, say, California, you can go down as far as ZIP code to see who’s contributing, and to whom.

We also have maps of independent expenditures, which gives you an idea of how much money is being spent on ads, how much outside spending is taking place in a race, around a race. Here are the House independent expenditures for this cycle. The darkest areas are the ones where most money is being spent. Again, California has a lot of spending.

The other place where you can find information on these ad-buys on the classic site is in the search section, under independent expenditures you can see what’s been filed today. These are ads that have been reported to us today. Quite a lot of activity. And you can also find these through the data catalog where the independent expenditures are – show up in a table that you can export.

The House and Senate maps currently are the best place on our site to see the totals that are being spent across races. So these are – I think these are the same numbers that you mentioned, Vice Chair Weintraub. Receipts and disbursements for House and Senate, and this would again be as of June 30th. The numbers will be rising quite a bit and you should be able to see those new numbers as of next week.

I think I’ll stop there. It gets very detailed, and if you are working with the data, please, again, call the press office and we’re happy to help out.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much. All right. Now I would like to open the floor up for questions after thanking our speakers. One thing I would like to say is please wait for the mic to be handed to you, please state your name and outlet for the transcripts, and please limit it to one question only. Vice Chair Weintraub?

All right. Questions, please.

QUESTION: I have four questions. (Laughter.) Okay. Okay. Good afternoon, welcome to Foreign Press. My name is Kanwal Abidi and my outlet name is the AZB, Pakistan English paper.

Okay. My – if you can be kind enough just to bear with me. Like, in your introduction, you gave us a figure of 2014, 3.8 billion, so that is midterm --


QUESTION: -- 2014? Okay. Okay. And what kind of campaign donations are tax-free? Like give --

MS WEINTRAUB: Well, they’re not – they’re not – the campaigns don’t have to pay tax on campaign contributions.

QUESTION: The companies --

MS WEINTRAUB: The recipients do not have to pay tax on it, but it comes out of money that has been taxed.

QUESTION: Like, let me just put my question in a correct, like, order. Like, if someone from – let’s – I will quote from Clinton Foundation. If someone from Clinton Foundation wants to contribute XYZ amount to upcoming 2020 Democrat candidate --

MS WEINTRAUB: No, illegal.

QUESTION: They can’t? They can’t?


QUESTION: Illegal, okay.


QUESTION: Okay. My – another question. You just see this – the nation saw the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. So after that, have you seen any rise in campaign funding within these three days?

MS WEINTRAUB: The ads that people talk about in connection with the Supreme Court nomination were ads that were run to try and encourage members of the Senate to vote for or against the nominee, so they’re not – it’s not money that – a Supreme Court nominee does not have a campaign fund. It’s not money that’s going to the nominee in order to spend money to promote his candidacy for the Supreme Court. There are judicial races that are elected, there are judicial seats that are elected, but not at the federal level. So some states have elected judges and they have to raise campaign funds. That’s not subject to our jurisdiction because they’re not federal races.

QUESTION: Hello. My name is Dmitry Zlodorev. I am from Sputnik News Agency, Russia. Do you have specific evidence – excuse me, do you have specific evidence of financial influence attempts on this election from other countries? From China, from Russia, maybe from somebody other?

MS WEINTRAUB: If there were allegations of that nature, that would be part of our enforcement process, and I’m not allowed to talk about matters that either are or could be part of our enforcement process. Those – there’s a process by which someone can file a complaint with the FEC if they think the law’s been violated, and our lawyers will look at it and the commission will consider it. There could be an investigation. But none of that becomes public until any investigation is concluded. So there’s really nothing that I can say about that.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for doing this. I’m Renata Janney. I’m with TV Asahi. It’s a Japanese TV station. I had a couple more technical questions, or I suppose more attached to the website than anything. Can you talk a little bit about how to interpret some of the numbers such as cash on hand? I assume it – I assume it means the money in the campaign’s bank account. If there seems to be a lot, does that mean that they’re perhaps holding on for something later? Things like that.

And then it’s a small one, so I’m sorry for going over my one-question limit, but I think I remember the FEC – you can also look up a list of PACs. Is that still the case or is that a different agency? Thank you.

MS WEINTRAUB: No, you can look up the PACs. I’m going to – do you know, would it be easier for you to show, Judy, where one would find it? And in the meantime, I’ll talk about cash on hand. Amongst the data that people have to report to us at the end of the reporting cycle is how much have they raised, how much have they spent, and how much do they have sitting in the bank right then and there. That’s the cash on hand. And at this point in the election cycle, if you saw someone who had no cash on hand, they’d probably be in trouble. They would want to have cash on hand right now to spend in the final lead-up to the election.

MS INGRAM: Somebody lost the internet connection.

MODERATOR: You want me to – hold on one second.

MS INGRAM: Anyway, on the question of analysis, one thing that we – I like to mention is that there are several groups in town and elsewhere in the country that use our data and do a number of analyses and reports based on the data we get. We post data as it’s reported to us by the filer. We don’t massage the data. We don’t correct anything. We may ask for amendments through what’s called a request for additional information. But the data that we receive is what we put on the website. Others such as OpenSecrets, ProPublica, and other watchdog groups – campaign finance watchdog groups take our data and they can draw conclusions that we don’t do for a number of reasons, in part because – thank you.

MODERATOR: No problem.

MS WEINTRAUB: Campaign Finance Institute is another good source for analysis.

MS INGRAM: Right, and they also – and then there’s the money – the one in Montana that --

MS WEINTRAUB: Yeah, which Campaign Finance Institute is now part of, the National Institute on Money and Politics, I think.

MS INGRAM: No internet.


MS INGRAM: There we go. So to find the list of PACs, you go to “Campaign Finance Data,” “Committees,” and then we have a number of categories here. We have – are you looking for any kind of PAC in particular?

QUESTION: No, it was more of a general question.

MS INGRAM: Okay. So if you look at all committees, you can sort them by the kind of committee they are. You go under “Committee Details,” or “Committee Type.” I’m having trouble seeing with these lights, sorry. If you export them into this table, the Excel table, you’ll see that one of the columns has “Type,” and you can sort them that way. Super PACs, which are independent expenditure-only committees, classis PACs, separate segregated funds, and so on. So separate segregated funds are committees that are associated with corporations or labor organizations. Their affiliated organization is allowed to pay their administrative expenses, but all of the money is collected from individuals who are either – they tend to be either executives of a corporation or members of a labor union.

The independent expenditure groups, what are commonly called super PACs, they’re allowed to accept unlimited contributions because they are not associated with a candidate or a political party. So the candidates themselves are – can only operate under the limits that I was describing earlier, but our Supreme Court has ruled that since the – if money is not going to the candidates themselves and is not going to be spent in coordination with those candidates, it’s all independent, then there is no risk of corruption of the candidate because they’re not getting the money, so there are no limits on how much can go to the super PAC. So super PACS, in addition to being able to collect unlimited amounts of money, can also collect money from corporations and labor organizations, which candidates and party committees cannot. But they still can’t collect money from foreign nationals.

QUESTION: Oh, thank you. My name is Majid Sattar. I’m with the German national daily FAZ. You pointed out the bipartisan structure of the Federal Election Committee. I was wondering – I’m assuming that the basis for that is just a public law, and since you mentioned that it can be a problem when you don’t agree, has there ever been attempts to change the bipartisan structure?

MS WEINTRAUB: Yeah, it’s part of our operating statute which dates back to the 1970s, and yeah, there are a number of bills in Congress right now to – that propose different ways of organizing the Federal Election Commissions, creating a whole new body that might be structured – might have an odd number of commissioners or might have commissioners that are appointed in a different way. There’s a bunch of ideas out there. But honestly, I don’t see a lot of prospect for anything changing, at least in the short term.

MODERATOR: All right, I would like to thank our speakers once again. Thank you very much for coming out.

MS WEINTRAUB: My pleasure.

MODERATOR: I would like to say thank you for all coming out here today. We have ongoing election coverage coming up, so please check and see if there are any tours and briefings that you’re interested in. And with that, I would like to call it closed. Oh, actually, we have one more question with New York. Sorry about that. New York, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Bengt Oestling from the Finnish Broadcasting Company. I have a question about how important is the money. Do you have to be a millionaire to get elected in United States? (Laughter.) And do you know how much own money the candidates are using?

MS WEINTRAUB: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the second part of your question.

QUESTION: How much money do the candidates use of their own money if they are millionaires and use their own money?

MS WEINTRAUB: Well, it varies. Candidates are allowed to put an unlimited amount of their own money into their elections because they can’t corrupt themselves. So the rationale for our contribution limits is to prevent corruption; it’s not believed that somebody can corrupt themselves, so if somebody is very wealthy they can put as much money as they want to into their own election. And we have had candidates who have spent a great deal of their own money on their elections.

How much? I mean, the money does not control the outcome, and the – probably the best example of that was the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton raised a lot more money than Donald Trump did, and she did not win. You need a lot – you need enough money to get your message out. If you have no money at all, you’re probably not going to get very far. So there’s probably some threshold that you have to break through in order to be a viable candidate, and it’s obviously more for a presidential candidate than it would be for a Senate candidate, more for a Senate candidate than it would be for a House candidate, in general.

But the amounts vary a great deal. It has been going up over the last number of years. It tends to. But it’s not – it’s not outcome determinative. It is – everybody always wants to have more money, and it tends to be true that the candidate who wins had more money, but sometimes that’s because the donors see that somebody who seems like they’re likely to win, and they want to back a winner. So the money sometimes follows the predictions of who’s going to win, and it’s not always that the money creates the winner, but sometimes the money follows the winner.

MODERATOR: All right, last call. All right, thank you. (Applause.)

# # #