Supreme Court Decision Opens Floodgates for More Campaign Cash

Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, CAPITOL HILL CORRESPONDENT, TRNN: So you’ve seen the headlines. “Supreme Court Strikes Down Limits on Federal Campaign Donations”. “Supremes: Money Is Speech”. “High Court Loosens Reins on Big Campaign Donors”.

But what does this McCutcheon case ruling even mean for everyday citizens? And how does this new Supreme Court ruling change the current campaign finance system?

SARAH BRYNER, RESEARCH DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: Now somebody can donate $5,200 to a candidate in an election cycle. But they can only do that about eight times before they hit a candidate maximum, an aggregate limit. Now they could theoretically–I don’t know how many people will do this, but they could theoretically donate $5,200 to every candidate. That probably would equal around $7.2 million in hard-money contributions directly to candidates. That doesn’t even account for the amount of money that they can contribute to PACs or parties or state parties. So when you start adding in all of that money, you reach, you know, a number that’s in the millions for the amount that a person could legally donate to these hard-money entities.

DESVARIEUX: Sarah Bryner is the research director at the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. Her organization essentially tracks campaign contributions from individuals, lobbyists, super PACs, and more, and makes all the information available for free at

The McCutcheon decision will not only mean more money in politics, but Bryner says that it will also make funds harder to track.

BRYNER –joint fundraising committees, which can accept unlimited amounts of money and then give that money to things like state parties or candidates. So, essentially what happens is a candidate sets up–or a candidate, usually a member of the leadership, sets up a joint fundraising committee, and a donor gives money to that joint fundraising committee. And then the committee gives that money to a state party, another candidate, another state party, the national party. In the past, that money was limited because the individual would have hit the campaign contributions limit. Now that’s not a concern. Within the joint fundraising committee, the things like the parties and the candidates can give money to each other. So once you give money through the committee, it could end up back in the original candidate’s hands. And I think Justice Breyer said that around $2.37 million could theoretically–this is all hypothetical–go from a donor to a candidate more or less directly.

These joint fundraising committees are already difficult to keep track of, because it’s hard to see the original source of the money once it’s allocated to all the sort of subcomponents of the committee. So that makes it difficult to sort of see how much influence one person is having towards one candidate. And now that there could be more of them and that they could take more money, it’s going to be just much more difficult to sort of keep track of one person’s attempted influence.

DESVARIEUX: But there are some who see this as a victory, like president of the Center for Competitive Politics David Keating, whose brainchild, super PACs, came out on top in the Supreme Court’s v. FEC case in 2010. Keating says this decision protects freedom of speech.


DAVID KEATING, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR COMPETITIVE POLITICS: One of the interesting parts of the ruling today was the court said something to the effect that the last people we want regulating speech are the people in the government itself. I mean, they have a clear conflict of interest to try to twist the rules in their favor. And that’s one of the thing this biennial limit that was struck down today did. It’s something that helped incumbents.

DESVARIEUX: Do you equate, then, speech with money?

KEATING: Well, speech doesn’t equal money, but if you want to buy ads, print flyers, do mailings, you need money to do it. So imagine if Congress passed a law saying, well, anyone could run a national news network, but none of the news networks could take more than $25,000 in advertiser money, or no one could invest more than $25,000 in a national news network. You wouldn’t be able to have much of a national news network. Right? And the same is true. If people want to get together and organize on a cause, you know, whether it’s gun control or abortion rights or, you know, taxes, you name it, we don’t want Congress passing laws saying you can only give a certain amount to support a cause in the context of an election.


DESVARIEUX: Critics of the McCutcheon Supreme Court decision have dubbed it Citizen United on steroids, alluding to the 2011 decision when the Court ruled that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money on political tools like advertisements.

But with all these loosening of regulations, it begs the question, how will this affect democracy?

TOM FERGUSON, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, UMASS BOSTON: In effect what you’ve just done is you’ve super-empowered the 1 percent. That’s the–I mean, now, this is not an enormous surprise. And they had plenty of access already with money that was not given directly to political campaigns in that narrow sense.

DESVARIEUX: But will the Supreme Court’s decision tilt the scales one way or the other for either Democrats or Republicans? Though Democrats came out bashing the ruling, Bryner says both parties are just as accepting and reliant on big donors.

BRYNER: The Republicans, I know, today have put up sort of positive language about the decision. I saw the director of the RNC praising the decision. And there’s been a lot more dissent from Democrats. But when it comes down to it, you know, the Democrats and Republicans usually take in around the same amount of money, and they all are benefiting from these very wealthy individuals. So it’s really more a question of rhetoric than it actually is, you know, one party rejecting big money. That hasn’t happened, and I certainly don’t see that happening in the future.

DESVARIEUX: Roosevelt Institute senior fellow Thomas Ferguson agrees that in the 2012 presidential election, Democrats were on par with Republicans in terms of campaign cash. But based on his recent research, he says Republicans are gaining a slight lead.

FERGUSON: –it’ll make it somewhat easier to give money inside Republican primaries to the candidates directly. I mean, people are still spending tons of money on the independent expenditures in those things. That’s where the main battleground has been in these primaries between, like, the Club for Growth versus the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or something. Like, if you want to think of that as Godzilla versus King Kong, that’s still the main bout there, and I don’t think that’s going to be upended by this decision.

DESVARIEUX: But what the data clearly does show is that the ones contributing to campaigns aren’t your average Americans. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, about $6.3 billion went into the 2012 federal cycle, and that’s only the money that we can track. By law, if you contribute more than $200, you have to itemize the contribution. The number of Americans that actually contribute more than $200 is 1.2 million. That’s less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. And those giving more than $2,500? They make up 0.08 percent of the U.S. population.

BRYNER: It’s difficult to prove any kind of quid pro quo relationship, but certainly it is the case that people who can donate large sums of money are probably more likely to get meetings with members of Congress or more likely to get their phone calls answered, and certainly that speech is potentially just more loud than the speech of an individual voter.

DESVARIEUX: Ferguson says that in order for speech to gain some equal footing, reigning in excessive campaign donations won’t be the solution. Instead, campaigns should be required to be funded by public financing.

FERGUSON: Campaigns really cost money. You know, the classical approaches to democracy forgot that small point. And you’ve got to find a way to finance elections.

Now, basically there are just two ways to do this. One is everybody pays a little public financing, or you leave it to just a few people to pay the whole bill, in which case they control the system.

DESVARIEUX: But, now that money has been given an even louder bullhorn in the political arena, time will tell if a critical mass will raise their voices to protest as the campaign cash starts racking up ahead of this November’s elections.

For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.