Election 2016

The Rich Control Our Politics More Than Ever -- You Can Thank Right-Wingers on the Supreme Court

More evidence that American democracy is increasingly out of our hands.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) enzodebarnado

The newest class of wealthy super-donors created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s right-wing majority now has more political access and influence than ever, according to several new reports.

Of America’s 318 million citizens, 310 people have taken advantage of its April ruling that threw out a $123,200 combined contribution cap for indviduals to candidates and political parties. That ruling, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, has since resulted in these donors exceeding the prior cap by a combined $48.9 million; with Republicans netting $33.3 million and Democrats netting $15.6 million, according to OpenSecrets.org.

That makes these rarified Americans one in a million, select individuals who can call a U.S. senator and expect a call back.

“You have to realize, when you start contributing to all these guys, they give you access to meet them and talk about your issues,” Andrew Sabin, a New York businessman and GOP mega-donor who has given $177,000 to Republicans, told the Washington Post. “They know I’m a big supporter.”

“I’m disappointed in all this stuff going on in Washington,” John Catsimatidis, a New York real estate developer who gave $183,400 mostly to the GOP, told OpenSecrets, which crunched Federal Election Commission numbers. “I try to support good people. It’s all I can really ask for is to meet and greet [politicians] and have my voice heard.”

For years, the wealthiest Americans have set and broken political giving records. These latest figures do more than affirm and continue this trend; they highlight a major schism in federal law and policy. On one side are Republicans and a majority of Supreme Court justices who believe there are no downsides to wealthy people having a disproportionate impact on elections and governing. On the other side are progressive political reformers and a handful of justices who believe the system needs checks and balances. 

Justice Stephen Breyer and the court’s three women justices wrote a blistering dissent in McCutcheon that predicted exactly what has transpired since, as confirmed by the Post’s and OpenSecret’s reporting: a handful of very wealthy Americans have deepened their ties to political parties by writing ever-larger checks, and these parties and their members of Congress are paying more attention to their top patrons than ever.

“Clearly, McCutcheon is working,” longtime GOP donor Richard DeVos, the ex-CEO of Amway, told OpenSecrets. “It provides for greater freedom, and the current system provides ample transparency for those who step up and make their voices heard.”

The conceit that Americans like Sabin, Catsimatidis and DeVos are simply citizens doing what is expected in a democracy collapses when you look at how many other Americans can “make their voices heard." In the FEC reporting period ending June 30, which are the most recent figures, 310 Americans gave $49.8 million to the two major parties, “or about $11.6 million more than would have been permissible under the old limits,” OpenSecrets said.

DeVos, who is well-known in GOP campaign circles, gave $100,000 to NewRepublican.org, which hopes to rebrand the party. Other well-known Republican donors include “billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch ($164,800 and $258,500, respectively), along with Chase Koch (Charles’ son, who has given $158,800) and Julia Koch (David’s wife, who has given $154,400),” according to OpenSecrets.

Most Americans don’t have the extra cash or inclination to make political contributions. Less than 0.03 percent of the population gives more than $2,600, which is the legal limit for contributions to individual candidates. But McCutcheon created a giant loophole, where much larger sums can be laundered through different political party accounts, magically combined, and then spent in the most competitive races.

That dynamic means mega-donors get to talk to top politicians, whereas average Americans end up on the receiving end of political advertising barrages. Unlike these super-donors, they don’t get their calls returned.

“What has this to do with corruption? It has everything to do with corruption,” Breyer wrote in his McCutcheon dissent. “Corruption breaks the constitutionally necessary ‘chain of communication’ between the people and their representatives. It derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard.”

It’s worth revisiting what Breyer said about the rationale and legal reasoning put forth by Chief Justice John Roberts and the other right-wing justices, who, given any chance, keep dismantling campaign finance laws under the guise of enabling more free speech.

“Its conclusion rests on its own, not a record-based, view of the facts,” Breyer wrote. “Its legal analysis is faulty: It misconstrues the nature of competing constitutional interests at stake. It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.”

Breyer said the first destructive deed of the Court’s right-wingers was to dumb down the definition of political corruption, essentially saying that anything short of an outright bribe is not corrupting. Breyer gives examples of how the real world of insider politics works, as evidence of the subtle but corrupting dance between donors and recipients. What’s remarkable about Breyer’s examples is that they are restated in quotes from top donors in this week’s Washington Post and OpenSecrets reports.

“Most soft-money donors [1990s slang for large donations to political parties] don’t ask and don’t care why the money is going to a particular state party, a party with whch they may have no connection. What matters is that the donor has done what the Member [of Congress] asked,” Breyer wrote, quoting Wade Randlett, Dashboard Technology CEO, who in the late 1990s bundled Silicon Valley donations for Democrats.

“Who, after all, can seriously contend that a $100,000 donation does not alter the way one thinks about—and quite possibly votes—on an issue,” Breyer wrote, quoting former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson. “It’s only natural and it happens all too often, that a busy senator with 10 minutes to spare will spend those minutes returning the call of a large soft money donor rather than the call of any other constituent,” Breyer wrote, quoting former Oklahoma Democratic Sen. David Boren.       

Breyer wrote that the current Supreme Court’s “plurality believes that the… scenarios I have just depicted either pose no threat, or cannot or will not take place.” But as the Post and OpenSecret confirms, the distortions of the process caused by outsized donations to political parties—leading to a 2002 soft-money ban that was overturned in April—are now being repeated in 2014 following the McCutcheon ruling.

“You can place more bets, y’know, small bets,” Jeffrey MacKinnon, a Washington lobbyist who represents America’s Natural Gas Alliance, Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals and Comcast Corp., told OpenSecrets, after donating $130,090 this cycle. “It means that you don’t have to worry as much at the end that you’ve gone over.”

“What happened before was you couldn’t give the max to a lot of good friends,” Catsimatidis told the Post. “Now you have no excuse.”

Meanwhile, some super-donors don’t want to hear any criticism that they have undue influence on the political process because of their wealth.

“Baloney,” replied Stanley Hubbard, a Minnesota media mogul who gave $191,000 to his party and candidates. “The average person can get their friends together and raise small donations that amount to big donations.”

“Tell billionaire Stanley Hubbard it takes minimum wage worker 12 yrs, 8 mos to earn as much as he’s given (191k),” tweeted David Donnelly, executive dirtector of the Public Campaign Action Fund, in response. His group promotes public financing of campaigns.

Breyer predicted that political party operatives would find ways to get more money from their cadres of super-donors, and he also said that American democracy would pay the price, with falling public confidence and participation in the system.  

“Donors can and likely will find ways to channel millions of dollars to parties and to individual candidates, producing exactly the kind of ‘corruption’ or ‘appearance of corruption’ that previously led the Court to hold aggregate limits constitutional,” he wrote. “The ‘appearance of corruption’ can make matters worse. It can lead the public to beleive that its efforts to communicate with its representatives or to help sway public opinion have little purpose.

“And a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).