Supreme Court Case Could Spark Dramatic Rise In Campaign Contributions From Wealthy Donors

WASHINGTON -- Removing the limits on total campaign contributions by a single donor, a restriction now before the Supreme Court, would lead to a huge increase in giving by a small group of very wealthy Americans, according to a new report released Friday.

The aggregate limits, which restrict individual donors to giving no more than $123,200 in the 2014 election cycle, are being challenged in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, set to be argued before the high court on Oct. 8. The case was brought by Alabama company owner Shaun McCutcheon and joined by the Republican National Committee. McCutcheon argues that the aggregate limits are an unconstitutional restriction of his First Amendment right to support as many candidates as he would like as much as he would like.

The report released by the progressive groups Demos and U.S. PIRG predicts that the elimination of these limits would lead to an estimated $1 billion increase in giving over the next seven years by the top 1,219 campaign donors from the 2012 election. This increase would push political campaigns into relying more heavily on the biggest donors than they do know and reduce even further the influence of small donors.

"If the court does decide to throw out precedent and side with the plaintiffs, it would make this problem significantly worse," Blair Bowie, democracy advocate at U.S. PIRG, said in a conference call to announce the report.

The report looks at the 1,219 donors who gave within 10 percent of the aggregate limits during the 2012 election cycle. Those donors combined to contribute $155.2 million to candidates, political parties and political action committees and, according to the report, would have given an estimated $459.3 million if the aggregate limits had not existed.

Such an increase, the report argues, "would significantly strengthen the power of a tiny number of elite donors compared with small contributions."

A number of other groups that want the Supreme Court to uphold the aggregate limits joined the Friday conference call to explain why their members do not wish to see big donors gain more influence.

"Here in McCutcheon we have a limit that's beyond reach for all but the very, very wealthiest families, and yet we have a court poised to say even that limit is too much," said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.

Sierra Club President Michael Brune added, "It's the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent. Even Mitt Romney would say that these folks are elitists. These are the limits that apply to an amount of people who couldn't even fill a high school gymnasium, and a good number of them are oil and gas and coal executives."

"If the Supreme Court overturns current limits, then we'll see that small group of people dominate America even more," Greenpeace President Phil Radford said.

NAACP General Counsel Kim Keenan argued that the influence of big-money donors on elections "is the second prong in a two-prong attack on voter participation against regular people in America."

"First, powerful and wealthy donors seek to buy as many leaders as they can through contributions. Then, the politicians bankrolled by those donors advance legislation that will suppress the votes of people who might object," Keenan said.

Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, worried about the future if the aggregate limits fall.

"We are fast approaching a point where politics is becoming a disagreement among rich people," Cantor said.

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