POLITICAL MONEY AND INFLUENCE OF THE WEALTHY GROWS AND GROWS

ABSTRACT: The political money and influence of the wealthy grows and grows. Wealthy donors making large contributions of up to $2,600 directly to Congressional candidates’ campaigns represent the great majority of candidates’ funding. There had been an overall limit of $123,200 on the grand total any individual could contribute in a two-year federal election cycle. However, the Supreme Court just ruled that this limit is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech. A wealthy individual can now contribute roughly $3.6 million directly to candidates and parties in every 2-year election cycle.  (This is in addition to the unlimited money they can spend on campaign advocacy outside of candidates’ campaign accounts based on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.)

Furthermore, a donor can gather checks from colleagues and friends and present them to the candidate along with his or her own check. This is a practice known as “bundling.” Often these bundlers pledge to raise $100,000 or more for a candidate.

Candidates spend 30% to 70% of their time raising money. If they can raise money in bigger chunks, they will. Therefore, candidates focus on the few big “funders” of campaigns. These big contributors or bundlers have more than an adequate incentive to contribute because it ensures that candidates hear their particular views and that candidates have an incentive to support big contributors’ views when policy is made.

The result is that our “democracy” is not representing us – the average voter. What we have here in the US is increasingly a plutocracy: government dominated by the small minority that are the wealthiest citizens. Coming up in my next post: strategies for reforming our system of financing campaigns to reclaim our democracy.

FULL POST: The political money and influence of the wealthy grows and grows. Wealthy donors making large contributions of up to $2,600 directly to Congressional candidates’ campaigns represent the great majority of candidates’ funding. Candidates for Congress raise only about 11% of their campaign contributions from donors giving less than $200.

Beyond donations to candidates’ campaigns, wealthy individuals can also give up to $32,400 per year to a national political party. There had been an overall limit of $123,200 on the grand total any individual could contribute in a two-year federal election cycle. However, the Supreme Court just ruled that this limit is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech in its McCutcheon decision.

Although the limit on a contribution to any candidate’s campaign or to a party remains (for now, see below), a wealthy individual can now contribute roughly $3.6 million directly to candidates and parties in every 2-year election cycle. [1] Through joint fundraisers and committees, wealthy contributors will now be solicited to write a single check for hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not a million dollars or more. (This is in addition to the unlimited money they can spend on campaign advocacy outside of candidates’ campaign accounts based on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.)

A court challenge to the contribution limit on donations to party committees has been filed by the Republican National Committee [2] and a challenge to the limit on contributions to individual candidates’ campaigns is likely. If successful, these challenges would allow wealthy individuals, and perhaps corporations, to give unlimited amounts of money directly to political candidates and parties.

Furthermore, a donor can gather checks from colleagues and friends and present them to the candidate along with his or her own check. This is a practice known as “bundling,” and the donor’s sway with the candidate is, of course, enhanced by delivering these large sums to the candidate’s campaign. Often these bundlers pledge to raise $100,000 or more for a candidate – far beyond the individual limit of $2,600.

Imagine you’re a candidate running for political office. You can either try to raise $100,000 from a thousand people in $100 contributions (a big contribution for most people), or you can try to raise $100,000 from 40 wealthy individuals or via one bundler. Candidates spend 30% to 70% of their time raising money. If they can raise money in bigger chunks, they will. Therefore, candidates focus on the few big “funders” of campaigns, because with each big catch they can cover much more of their campaign costs. [3] These big contributors, now more than ever, will be national figures, not ones with any connection to a candidate’s district or state.

Edwin Bender of the National Institute on Money in State Politics notes that “contribution limits play a crucial role in … increasing the participation rate by small-dollar donors.” [4] So as the Supreme Court eliminates contribution limits as unconstitutional limits on freedom of speech, the candidates focus on fewer and fewer donors who contribute larger and larger amounts. These big contributors or bundlers have more than an adequate incentive to contribute because it ensures that candidates hear their particular views  – about regulation, government spending, limits on lawsuits, trade, workers’ protections, intellectual property right s, or whatever – and that candidates have an incentive to support big contributors’ views when policy is made.

In a recent study from Princeton (the largest empirical analysis of government policy decision making to-date), Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conclude that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial … impacts on U.S. governmental policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no … influence.” [5]

With candidates dependent on big contributors for the money necessary to run a competitive campaign, it’s not surprising that policies reflect the interests of these contributors and not the average citizen. The result is that our “democracy” is not representing us – the average voter – and therefore is not working as our founders intended. What we have here in the US is increasingly a plutocracy: government dominated by the small minority that are the wealthiest citizens.

Coming up in my next post: strategies for reforming our system of financing campaigns to reclaim our democracy by making our elected officials beholden to us. As a result, they would have incentives to represent us instead of wealthy individuals and corporations.

[1]       Lee, C., 5/5/14, “The fatter the wallet, the louder the voice,” Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/fatter-wallet-louder-voice)

[2]       Money in Politics Newsletter, 5/29/14, “The aftermath of McCutcheon v. FEC,” Brennan Center for Justice (http://www.brennancenter.org/newsletter/money-politics-newsletter-mccutcheons-aftermath-primary-fundraising)

[3]       Lessig, L., 6//4/14, “What’s so bad about a Super PAC?” https://medium.com/law-of-the-land/whats-so-bad-about-a-superpac-c7cbcf617b58

[4]       Bender, E., 5/13/13, “Evidencing a republican form of government: The influence of campaign money on state-level elections,” Montana Law Review (http://www.followthemoney.org/press/Reports/Evidencing_a_Republican_Form_of_Government.pdf)

[5]       Gilens, M., & Page, B., 4/9/14, “Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens,” (http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf)

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