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One Percent of the One Percent Dominates Funding of U.S. Electoral Politics

Posted May 13, 2015

MP3 Interview with Russ Choma, money and politics reporter with the Center for Responsive Politics, conducted by Scott Harris

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The U.S. 2014 midterm election set a record as the most expensive campaign in the country’s history, where the wealthiest donors contributed 29 percent of all fundraising that political committees disclosed to the Federal Election Commission. The 2014 election also set a record for the lowest voter turnout in 72 years, where only 36.3 percent of eligible American voters cast ballots across the country. Only the 1942 election during the dark early days of World War II had a lower participation rate at 33.9 percent.

A new report titled, "The Political One Percent of the One Percent: Megadonors Fuel Rising Cost of Elections in 2014," is a joint analysis of the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation. The report provides ammunition to critics of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United and 2014 McCutcheon rulings that opened up the floodgates of unlimited and unaccountable campaign contributions from the nation's super-rich and giant corporations.

"The Political One Percent of the One Percent" report found that the "31,976 top donors combined accounted for more than one out of every four dollars raised by PACs, super PACs, parties and candidates in the 2014 election cycle." Republican committees and conservative groups that support them raised $553 million from elite donors, more than the $505 million that Democratic and liberal political groups received. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Russ Choma, money-in-politics reporter with the Center for Responsive Politics and co-editor of "The Political One Percent of the One Percent” report, who summarizes the significant findings of his election analysis, which many observers view as evidence of a severe threat to U.S. democracy.

RUSS CHOMA: The reason that we decided to do (the report) is we often get the question, "How much does the one percent give?" And we always tell people, "You're thinking too broadly." (Chuckles.) Most Americans never give money to a political campaign or a candidate. We figure that less than two-tenths of one percent ever give more than $200 in a cycle. And something like four one-hundredths of one percent gave more than $2600 in the last cycle.

So, we wanted to get a sense of who the top donors were because we get this question so much. And there was a very good report that was put out by the Sunlight Foundation in 2012 that uses methodology that we chose to bring up again, which was there's between 310 (million) and 320 million Americans. So let's look at the one percent of the one percent of that, so basically the top 31,000 or so political donors. And we looked at them for each of the last three cycles and we tried to see how much money they gave, who they give their money to, who these people are. And the thing that we found in the 2014 election, the cycle that just finished, these 31,000 odd donors gave $1.8 billion. The total election, donors – all donors – gave up $4 billion. So $1.8 billion came from the top 31,000 people. And that's more than it's ever been, and the election cost more than ever before, and this sort of elite set of donors were responsible for a bigger chunk of the cost of the election.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Now link, if you would, the findings in this report to the Supreme Court's decisions in both the Citizens United case as well as the McCutcheon case which really opened the flood gates of unlimited, and in many cases, anonymous donations to political campaigns.

RUSS CHOMA: Sure. Elections have been getting expensive for quite some time. Every election that we've got data on has been more expensive than the ones before. So that trend isn't new. But the Citizens United decision, which basically allowed unlimited donations to a new type of political organization, a SuperPAC, and it allowed corporate money as well, but really, we've seen a lot of individuals, wealthy individuals taking advantage of the unlimited donations, and it also allowed some anonymous money. So it made it easier to give. There were people who could always find a way to give. There were people who always gave an extraordinary amount, but it really made it easier for people to give unbelievable amounts, unprecedented amounts. And one of the things we saw, for example, was the 2014 election was like all elections, more expensive than the one before it. We compared it to the 2010 midterms – because that was the closest analogy – so it was more expensive than the 2010 midterms. But the interesting thing we noticed was that there were actually fewer donors than there were before. And in this report, we sort of explore that, because these top one percent are paying a bigger share than ever before, so they need fewer people to make up the costs. And so the cost is going up, but the people who are paying it, the number of people who are paying it, is declining. And it's because of Citizens United in large part, because they can make these unlimited donations. A candidate doesn't have to go to tens of thousands of small donors trying to get donations of $5, $10 or $50. They just hope that there's a SuperPAC out there can go to one donor who can write a check for $500,000, a million, two million, five million. The biggest donor in 2014 gave $72 million and the biggest donor in 2012 gave $93 million. You know, that really takes the importance of the small donors and really diminishes it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Russ, there are a growing number of people in this country who believe that our U.S. political system is severely broken, serving the interests of the very wealthy few and not the majority of U.S. citizens. And I think that was evidenced by the fact that during the 2014 elections, we saw the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. So, I'm not sure we can make the correlation right there, but a lot of people are not very happy with participating in a system where these billionaires appear to be calling the shots. I wonder if you would comment on that and also some of the possible remedies for this, including what many groups are advocating, which is a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and moving toward a public financing system.

RUSS CHOMA: So yeah, that's a really interesting question. I think that when you look at public opinion polls, most Americans, regardless of their political stripe, do not like the role that money plays in politics. Both sides feel like special interests and money have too much say. So the question is, what do we do about it, or is anything going to be done about it? The Supreme Court is probably not going to change its makeup any time soon. They've had opportunities to revisit the issue and they chose not to. In fact, they've had additional decisions, like the McCutcheon decision that you referenced earlier that further loosened restrictions.

And so, it seems like you've got to have Congress do something and Congress can make a constitutional amendment. But this (past) fall, the constitutional amendment made it to the floor of the Senate and it got the majority – the Democrats got control of the majority – but it failed on party line votes. It failed to get the 60 votes it needed to pass the filibuster. So every Democrat voted "yes" and every Republican voted "no" and it didn't go anywhere. And the Republicans now control both the House and the Senate and it doesn't seem like a constitutional amendment is going to go anywhere anytime soon with that.

And so, I think that unless something happens that gets enough people angry, that gets both sides willing to work on this, even a constitutional amendment seems unlikely. So the "good news, bad news" situation is that when we talk to people who work in this field, when we talk to lawyers who represent some of these outside groups, they tell us that they're scared. That they're scared because they feel like they're walking through a minefield. That there's a big, big scandal that might break at any moment. And they're afraid that they're going to get caught up in it. So, every day that goes by that the scandal doesn't break is another day there is exponentially greater chance of it happening, and at that point that's when you might actually get enough people mobilized to act for some kind of reform. But for the time being, it's an issue that everyone talks about and when you poll them, everyone says that they're concerned about it, but when they go to the polls they rarely make it a priority when they vote for a candidate. There's economic concerns, there's foreign relations concerns, there's taxes, there's budget, all sort of things. It's something that bothers everyone, but doesn't seem to make it to the top of the priority list.

For more information on the Center for Responsive Politics by visiting opensecrets.org and read the "The Political One Percent of the One Percent" report.

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