WASHINGTON -- Presidential candidates from both parties are going to solicit six and seven-figure contributions directly from donors for the first time in a decade, thanks to looser campaign finance rules enacted by the Supreme Court and Congress in recent years.
Both parties are pushing wealthy donors to give more than $1 million for the 2016 presidential campaign, according to The Washington Post. Their efforts mark the first $1 million party campaign solicitations since the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act banned individual donors from making “soft money” donations -- or unlimited contributions to political parties -- in an effort to curtail opportunities for corruption. (Corporations are still banned from making "soft money" donations to parties.) The Supreme Court upheld this ban in 2003.
Yet thanks to another Supreme Court ruling a decade later, as well as a congressional decision in 2014 to increase party contribution limits, Hillary Clinton's campaign will now be able to ask single donors to contribute approximately $1.3 million over the two-year 2016 election cycle -- and could potentially raise more. Her Republican rivals could follow her lead.
“We’re watching the destruction of the contribution limits, whose principal purpose was to prevent corruption,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21. “So, if you destroy the rules that prevent corruption, you’re going to end up with widespread corruption in Washington.”
The massive contributions that parties and their presidential candidates now hope to solicit are exactly what campaign finance reform proponents like Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center warned the Supreme Court about two years ago.
In the 2013 McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that limiting aggregate campaign contributions for political parties and candidates to $123,000 in a two-year election cycle violated the free speech rights of wealthy donors.
During courtroom debate over the McCutcheon decision, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli expressed concern that political parties could create joint fundraising committees to allow a single candidate to solicit a $1 million-plus contribution, which could be distributed to a collection of federal and state party committees. State parties could then transfer this money to other, more important state parties (for example, those in swing states) to benefit the candidate.
Justice Samuel Alito, without any apparent knowledge of similar prior arrangements by parties and candidates, declared, “Now, how -- how realistic is that? How realistic is it that all of the state party committees, for example, are going to get money and they're all going to transfer it to one candidate?" Alito went on to call such situations “wild hypotheticals” that "certainly lack any empirical support."
Chief Justice John Roberts also dismissed these concerns, among others raised by supporters of the aggregate limits, as “divorced from reality.”
However, Clinton's campaign proved that Verrilli and other critics were right on September 16, when her campaign expanded the Hillary Victory Fund, the super joint fundraising committee it created earlier this year with the Democratic National Committee, to include 33 state parties.
A maximum annual donation of $666,700 (totaling approximately $1.3 million in two years) will be split up among committees -- with $2,700 going to the Clinton campaign, a maximum of $334,000 to the DNC and $10,000 to each state party committee. If Clinton wins her party’s nomination, those state party accounts could transfer funds she raises to the party accounts in swing states, enabling donors to exceed the $10,000 “base” contribution limit to an individual state party.
“The ability to cut a check for more than a million dollars to Hillary Clinton’s joint fundraising committee completely destroys the effectiveness of the $2,700 candidate contribution limit,” said Paul Ryan, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center.
The $334,000 DNC contribution is made possible by the expanded party contribution limits Congress passed in December 2014. This contribution includes a $33,400 donation to the Democratic party’s main account and $100,200 to each of three separate accounts for legal expenses, headquarters expenses and party convention expenses. Clinton campaign lawyer Marc Elias negotiated the increase in limits for Senate Democrats.
In exchange for their contributions, the new million-dollar donors sought by parties and presidential candidates will receive access to dinners, retreats, insider phone calls and opportunities to talk to top lawmakers and candidates.
This dynamic now mimics the soft money landscape Congress banned in 2002 and the Supreme Court upheld in 2003. In its 2003 McConnell v. FEC decision, the Supreme Court found that candidates' practice of soliciting large contributions for their direct benefit raised concerns about both actual corruption and the appearance of corruption. In the court's eyes, this justified new restrictions on campaign contributions and spending.
That court majority stated, “Both common sense and the ample record in these cases confirm Congress’ belief that large soft money contributions do lead to actual and apparent corruption."
"The evidence connects soft money to manipulations of the legislative calendar, leading to Congress’ failure to enact, among other things, generic drug legislation, tort reform, and tobacco legislation,” the majority continued.
While these new high-dollar solicitations are intended to increase the power of parties relative to outside groups that can raise unlimited corporate and union money, there are no signs that the latter will lose their sway. Most super PACs and nonprofit groups are deeply enmeshed in the political party and candidate infrastructure. They are controlled by party elites and corporate lobbyists, and are funded by insider donors and lobbyist clients.
“This money is going to be raised by public officials. The donors are going to want something,” Wertheimer said. “It is a classic case of the Democratic and Republican national parties being blind to history and determined to repeat the same campaign finance abuses that happened in the past.”