Resources Tool Kit: McCutcheon v. FEC


Equal Justice Under Law

A major campaign finance case is up for oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court tomorrow, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The Sunlight Foundation put together a resources tool kit on the issues around transparency and disclosure of political contributions and campaign finance in advance of the case. You can also keep up with Sunlight’s thoughts on it right here on our blog.

About McCutcheon v. FEC

On October 8, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, a case in which the plaintiff, Shaun McCutcheon, joined by the Republican National Committee, is challenging the constitutionality of the overall limit on contributions to federal candidates and political parties.

Looking for a full case overview and court documents? Check out the SCOTUSblog.

Sunlight’s Take

The Citizens United ruling three years ago opened up the floodgates and now this one may give those who can give more power. If the court rules in favor of McCutcheon and the RNC, it might as well tie a big bow around Congress and deliver it to a tiny percentage very rich.

Sunlight’s Lisa Rosenberg notes:

The plaintiffs in the McCutcheon case don’t view multi-million dollar solicitations and contributions from a single individual as a problem. Since money is speech, protected by the First Amendment, how can more money be a bad thing? What they miss, or choose to ignore, is that restrictions on money as speech can and have been long upheld as constitutional in order to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption of our political process. They also fail to consider the First Amendment rights of the overwhelming majority of citizens, who cannot buy access to elected officials in order to give voice to their issues. Seven-figure contributions are not a megaphone merely amplifying the voices of the donors, they are a sonic boom, overpowering to the point of silencing all other voices.

Editorial Bill Allison addresses how the case could impact “checkbook lobbying.” He writes:

More than two decades ago, when Congress considered reforms that would put the brakes on hostile takeovers by corporate raiders, some of them used their checkbooks and their access to derail the effort without ever disclosing their lobbying efforts.

Back in 1989, federal election law limited the amount an individual could give to candidates, parties and political action committees to $25,000. That year Texas billionaire and corporate takeover artist Harold C. Simmons contributed $45,500. That year Simmons, a staunch Republican now best known for seven-figure contributions to groups like Swift Boat Vets for Truth and American Crossroads, gave plenty to GOP pols. But, unusual for him, he also wrote $1,000 checks to Democratic stalwarts like Sens. David Boren, D-Okla., Paul Simon, D-Ill., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., as well as a $15,000 check to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

1% of the 1% — who gives the most money

In June, Sunlight released an analysis called the “1% of the 1%,” which reviewed how the top sliver of the nation’s population gives to political campaigns. We found that in the 2012 election, 28 percent of all disclosed political contributions came from just 31,385 people (.01 percent of the U.S. population), and this money reached the campaign coffers of every winning congressional seat last year.

Read additional findings of how the 1% of the 1% applies to McCutcheon v. FEC by Lee Drutman, including a closer look at the top 1,000 biggest donors.

Total political giving by the 1% of the 1% in 2012 = $1.7 billion

  • $671 million to party committees
  • $500 million to super PACs
  • $410 million to candidates
  • $89 million to PACs

Entry “cost” to the 1% of the 1% in 2012 = $12,950

  • A number that increased continuously over the past two decades.
  • In 1990, a single $2,000 contribution (about $3,700 in 2012 dollars) could put you in the 1% of the 1%. By 2000, the minimum contribution was $5,700. It crossed the $10,000 mark for the first time in 2008 (reaching $11,000).

Republican vs. Democratic donors

  • 15,343 people predominantly supported the GOP
  • 11,088 people predominantly supported the Democrats

2012 Totals by Amount Range

  • 95 donors gave at least $1,000,000
  • 192 donors gave at least $500,000
  • 390 donors gave at least $250,000
  • 1,323 donors gave at least $117,000 (the aggregate individual limit to candidates and parties)
  • 2,047 donors gave at least $100,000

Tools to track political contributions and influence

  • — Connect the dots and search by politician, donor or organization to review campaign contributions, lobbying records and other levels of influence in politics.
  • — A real-time feed of independent expenditures reported to the FEC in support of or against congressional candidates.
  • — A calendar and database of political fundraisers.

The sites all feature downloadable data.

State bills on campaign finance disclosure

In September, we examined how state legislatures are addressing the Citizens United v. FEC ruling, nearly four years later. Using our site, which is a digital, searchable database for all 50 state legislatures plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, we analyzed bills that amended campaign finance laws and introduced in 2012 and 2013. We also noted whether the bill is pending or passed, and whether it would be better, worse or neutral for campaign finance disclosure efforts.

By The Numbers

  • 23 states plus the District of Columbia introduced legislation around campaign finance disclosure
  • There are 66 bills total:
    • 39 are better for disclosure
    • 25 remain neutral
    • 2 are worse
  • Common bill topics:
    • Closing loopholes
    • Increasing hard money limits
    • Public financing for elections
    • Donor floodgates

Read more about Sunlight’s position on the role of disclosure in money and politics here.

“Equal Justice Under Law” photo by dannymac15_1999 on Flickr.