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Whose Interests are More Important? 1,219 Wealthy Individuals or the Rest of America?

J. Mijin Cha

A new report from Public Campaign shows what could happen if the Supreme Court deals another blow to campaign finance reform in McCutcheon v. FEC. The case is a challenge to aggregate contribution limits, i.e. limits on the overall amount of money a donor can contribute to federal candidates, parties, and political action committees. Currently, no one person can contribute over $117,000 in total. Given that’s already more than twice the average American’s annual income, the contribution cap is not exactly limiting the ability of people to donate.

Yet, wealthy interests want to be able to spend even more than they do now. And, make no mistake; it is only a small, elite group of wealthy interests that are impacted by this contribution cap. As Public Campaign found, only 1,219 people neared or reached the aggregate contribution limit, which averages out to about four people for every million Americans. Yet, while only a tiny percentage of average Americans, one in six billionaires is a member of this elite donor group.

Among the other findings, this small group of elite donors comes from the wealthiest part of America. Over 80 percent of them live in the richest 10 percent of neighborhoods; nearly half live in the richest one percent of neighborhoods. Twenty-eight percent of these donors come from Wall Street and the financial sector and are far more likely to be white and male.

The current government shutdown is a perfect example of why money in our electoral system is so destructive. As my colleague, David Callahan, pointed out mega-donors like Peter Thiel are responsible for the government shutdown because they fund groups like the Club for Growth. Club for Growth has made it clear it will use its vast funds against members of the House who don’t get behind the push to defund Obamacare. The Club spent $8 million in 2010 elections and $18 million in 2012 and is clear it will primary moderates and even conservatives who do not toe their ideological line. Donors like Thiel are directly responsible for the existence of the Club and our broken electoral system gives the Club outsized influence because of their campaign spending.

Further, as we’ve pointed out continuously, the interests and priorities of the wealthy dominate our policy agenda because the wealthy dominate campaign spending. Instead of increasing the minimum wage, Congress cuts capital gains taxes. Instead of allowing the government to function, Congress shuts it down and the people that are impacted are not the wealthy, but average Americans who want to go to the park or struggling families that depend on food benefits just to feed their families or children who are enrolled in Head Start programs.

The aggregate contribution limits are our last hope for limiting the already outsized influence of money in our electoral system. It’s really a case of balancing the limited interests of 1, 219 wealthy individuals against the livelihood of hundreds of millions of average Americans. I wish I was exaggerating.