If 97% Percent of Americans Sold Everything They Owned and Spent It on Congressional Elections, They Still Couldn't Max Out
The Supreme Court’s ruling in FEC vs. McCutcheon eliminated one of the few remaining limits on campaign donations, granting frightening new powers to the richest Americans, while providing no clear benefit to the rest of the population. McCutcheon eliminated the overall limit that individuals can give to candidates and parties in an election cycle. While the Court justified its ruling on the grounds of free speech, a pillar of democracy, a quick examination of the practical effects of McCutcheon shows that the ruling is anything but democratic.
Campaign donors can give up to $2,600 per election cycle to a given candidate. Before McCutcheon, there was an overall cap of $48,600 for donations to candidates. Combine that with a $74,600 limit on contributions to PACs and political parties, and individuals had a total legal maximum of $123,200 per two-year election cycle for federal races.
Given that this is about 20 percent more than the total two-year income of the median American household, it’s clear that U.S. campaign finance laws granted outsized political power to the rich before McCutcheon. In a post-McCutcheon world, $123,200 looks like the crumbs that fell off the table.
In 2014, as with every election cycle, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for election, as will a third of the 100 Senate seats. If an individual donor wanted to give the maximum to one candidate in each of the 468 races, the only limit to doing so is his or her bank account.
Specifically, to max out on one side of every race, a donor would need $1,216,800. Tack on the $74,600 for PACs and parties for a total of $1,291,400.
Ninety-seven percent of the country could not reach this limit if they emptied their bank accounts and liquidated all of their possessions. For a few lucky souls, however, $1.3 million is a drop in the bucket.
The Koch brothers can support every pro-fracking, climate-denying, anti-tax candidate with an insignificant fraction of their $41 billion (each).
The Walton family, owners of the vast Walmart empire, can essentially guarantee that Obama’s big push to increase the minimum wage will not go anywhere by maxing out on GOP candidates. For six individual Waltons, that would be a rounding error in their bank account, and likely a profitable investment, given the number of Walmart employees currently making minimum wage.
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is hardly shy about pushing his anti-tax and pro-Israel agendas via donations, is as good a bet as any to use McCutcheon to wield more power than most individual lawmakers.
These billionaires, merely by acting in their own self-interest, warp U.S. policy decisions in a way that is arbitrary and harmful to the vast majority of the country.
Of course, even before McCutcheon, rich donors had an outlet to wield huge political power: super PACs. These groups are permitted to receive unlimited, undisclosed donations, provided that they don’t coordinate with official campaigns. Super PACs, while powerful, have not managed to spend money as efficiently as most official political campaigns, in terms of election results (Karl Rove’s super PAC American Crossroads famously did not back a single winner in 2012).
An optimist would say that McCutcheon will divert money from super PACs to official campaigns. A realist would say that super PACs will continue to spend and receive at record levels, while campaigns will get a fresh influx of money from rich donors who can buy political influence with a tiny fraction of their wealth.