The Supreme Court Could Be Creating a Right to Bribery
Striking down contribution limits is akin to creating a right to bribery
October 8, 2013
Imagine a fire starting to engulf your neighbor's home, but the fire engine that rushes to the scene has tanks filled with kerosene instead of water. It'd be disastrous. In a few days, the Supreme Court will hear a case that threatens to be just like that fire truck, one that could take a political system already dominated by big money special interests and allow even more influence buying by elite donors.
The case, McCutcheon v. FEC, is a challenge by Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee to a limit on the overall amount a political donor can give to federal candidates and committees. The limit was put into place as an anti-corruption measure during the post-Watergate reforms, aiming to keep campaign donors from doing an end run around limits on the amount of money a single donor could give to a political candidate or party.
This aggregate contribution limit or "superlimit" is already far out of reach for the vast majority of Americans – set at $123,200 for 2014, well over double the amount a typical American family makes in a year.
While this kind of limit may seem quaint in the era of big money super PACs, it's an important measure aimed at limiting the direct corruption of elected officials and it's a sort of backstop on the political inequality already built into our big money system. Without it, a 2016 presidential candidate could directly solicit donations of nearly $1.2 million from a single donor to distribute to various committees supporting his or her candidacy.
If you made a list of groups that don't have enough political power in America, billionaires and wealthy, white men probably wouldn't be at the top. But if the Supreme Court rules the wrong way in McCutcheon, that's exactly who would gain the most.
A new report by our organization, Public Campaign, found that the 1,219 donors who would win the most additional power from the Court striking down the limit – those who got within 10 percent of the superlimit cap in 2012 – look virtually nothing like the rest of America. The ranks of these elite donors look more like the membership of an exclusive country club than a cross-section of the country.
The list was chock full of the American elite that already wield vast amounts of political power, including the energy billionaire Koch brothers, Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, K Street power lobbyist Tony Podesta and Wall Street titan Charles Schwab. Only four in 1 million Americans were on the list in 2012, but one in six billionaires has a spot. They include three of the richest five Americans: Larry Ellison, Charles Koch, and David Koch.
They come from the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. Nearly half of the elite donors (47.6 percent) live in the richest one percent of neighborhoods, as measured by per capita income, and more than four out of every five (80.5 percent) are from the richest 10 percent. And on the fifth anniversary of the bank bailouts, it's worth noting that Wall Street dominates the ranks of these donors. Twenty-eight percent of donors come from Wall Street and the financial sector, leading New York State to have more top donors than 32 states combined.
These donors don't reflect the country's ethnic diversity either. While more than one-in-six Americans – 57 million people – live in a neighborhood that is majority African-American, Hispanic or Asian, less than one-in-50 superlimit donors do. In fact, a single wealthy ZIP code in Manhattan's Upper East Side (10021) has as many elite donors as all of these neighborhoods combined. Women are also highly underrepresented, making up only one-quarter of these top donors.
If the court sides with McCutcheon, a small set of big campaign donors would win even more sway over politics, while the rest of the country, including historically marginalized groups like women and minorities, would get pushed farther to the sidelines.
Our elections are already dominated by the voices of a wealthy few. If the court throws out these limits, or opens the door to invalidating all contribution limits, it will essentially be guaranteeing a constitutional right to bribery.
Luckily, there is an easy solution for the court. It should follow years of precedent and uphold the limits. Otherwise, it will just be adding fuel to the fire.