As Congress is poised to push through a historically unpopular tax bill, it’s worth revisiting a piece by our colleague Daniel Weiner, noting the forthrightness with which members of Congress have made clear that donors have been driving this process. A cynical public has long believed that “candidates who win public office promote policies that directly help the people and groups who donated money to their campaigns,” but rarely have we seen both officeholders and donors themselves state this so openly. It’s worth asking: Has something changed? We think so. But first, let’s look at some of those statements.
On the officeholder side, to take but one example, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) told the Hill newspaper, “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’” And Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund and former chief of staff to Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell noted “[Donors] would be mortified if we didn’t live up to what we’ve committed to on tax reform.”
Perhaps even more striking is the brazenness with which donors themselves are admitting they have threatened members of Congress. Conservative donor Doug Deason of Texas explicitly said the “Dallas piggy bank” was closed until tax and health bills were passed. “Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed…You control the Senate. You control the House. You have the presidency. There's no reason you can't get this done. Get it done and we'll open it back up,” Deason told Republican leaders.
Deason refused to host fundraisers for Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH). “I said, ‘No I'm not going to because we're closing the checkbook until you get some things done.’”
One outside spending group showed members of Congress potential ads they might run in their districts depending on how tax reform proceeds on Capitol Hill. One unidentified House Republican told HuffPost: “Like a teacher showing the kids a paddle on the first day of class, the blatant implication was that those who misbehaved would be spanked.”
So what’s going on? We have a theory, and it relates to that most famous of Supreme Court campaign finance cases, Citizens United, decided in 2010. When people talk about Citizens United – which allowed unlimited “independent” spending in elections and indirectly led to now infamous super PACs – they often talk about how it has opened the floodgates to massive amounts of money in our politics. This is a misconception. In fact, while the amount of money spent in federal elections since Citizens United has increased, the increase has not been particularly dramatic.
What has been dramatic is the change in who funds elections. Increasingly our elections are financed by just a handful of donors who make multimillion dollar contributions to support candidates for federal office. In 2010, the top 100 individual donors contributed just of $73 million to federal candidates, parties, and other committees, including super PACs. In 2012, that number increased to $380 million, and by 2016, it reached over $900 million.
All of this means that a few donors matter much more than they used to, and those donors can make threats that genuinely terrify members of Congress. Whereas before Citizens United donors of $100,000 or more could make up as little as 5 percent of all individual contributions in federal elections, after Citizens United they could represent as much as one in four dollars. That’s power!
The very real threat for members of Congress is that if they don’t get tax reform done, they may face heavily financed challengers in primary races. Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff made clear he understood the power of such threats when he told donors they should reconsider their contributions in the event the tax bill fails. “[I]f I were you, I would not only stop donating, I would form a coalition of all the other major donors, and just say two things. We’re definitely not giving to you, No. 1. And No. 2, if you don’t have this done by Dec. 31, we’re going out, we’re recruiting opponents, we’re maxing out to their campaigns, and we’re funding super PACs to defeat all of you.”
In recent years, as the Supreme Court has dismantled the nation’s campaign finance laws, it’s become fashionable in some quarters to argue that money in politics doesn’t matter because it doesn’t drive electoral outcomes – that is, the actual outcomes of elections hasn’t really been changed by the huge influx of post-Citizens United big spenders. Last year’s election, which saw Sanders and Trump soar, despite raising far less money than their opponents, led to even more handwringing – with some arguing that “campaign money in 2016 has become meaningless.”
We’ve stated before that we find these analyses unconvincing. Candidates for federal office need a minimum amount of money to run competitive campaigns, even if they don’t need the most money of all candidates to win. And when members of Congress get used to raising money from just a few people, they give those people enormous power. The real impact of an unregulated campaign finance is on policy, and the proof is in this year’s tax bill.