Once upon a time, there were limits on how much money the wealthiest donors could spend to influence elections. Thanks to the Supreme Court, however, those limits are nearly meaningless — so much so that the Democratic Party just set up an entity that will allow it to collect individual checks exceeding a million dollars.
Even after Citizens United v. FEC unleashed a torrent of donations to so-called “independent” groups that operate separately from parties and candidates, donations to the parties and candidates themselves were still regulated. Among other things, the law capped the total amount donors could give to all federal candidates and all political committees combined at $123,200 in a single election cycle.
Then came McCutcheon v. FEC, a 5-4 decision invalidating this cap. The upshot, as ThinkProgress explained at the time, was that either major party may now “set up a ‘Joint Party Committee’ consisting of all three of their national party committees and a state party committee from each of the 50 states.” Donors could then write a single check worth more than a million dollars to this committee.
Last week, the Democratic Party set up something very similar. According to a statement filed with the Federal Election Commission, the new Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund “collects contributions, pays fundraising expenses and disburses net proceeds” to 52 different arms of the Democratic Party, including the DNC, the District of Columbia Democratic State Committee, and Democratic Party organizations from all 50 states.
As the money in politics group Issue One explains, this structure will allow this “grassroots” victory fund to “solicit more than $540,000 per individual donor per year — or about $1.1 million per year from married couples.” The reason why is that, while there are still limits on how much money a donor can give directly to the DNC or an individual state party, those limits add up to quite a bit of money when combined together.
Meanwhile, once the money is distributed to individual state parties, the law permits those state-level groups to redistribute it among themselves to places where it will have the most impact. Thus, state parties in fairly solid blue states, such as Connecticut or Rhode Island, can redistribute their share of the “grassroots” victory fund’s earnings to states like Arizona or Nevada, where there are competitive Senate races. Republicans can also set up a similar fundraising committee, and redistribute money from solid red states to more uncertain races.
The logic of decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon, is that campaign finance legislation is only permitted when it targets “‘quid pro quo‘ corruption or its appearance.” Thus, absent an arrangement involving “dollars for political favors,” the government is powerless against wealthy donors seeking to influence elections. The fact that organizations like the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund make it easy for parties to solicit massive checks — and make sure lawmakers know which donors wrote these checks — does not matter.
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in McCutcheon, “government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford.”
The result is that it is really easy for wealthy donors to buy gratitude and all the favors that gratitude brings, and very difficult for lawmakers to do anything about this problem. And so we now live in a world where political parties can collect million-dollar checks from their wealthiest donors.