The Double Standard on US Campaign Contributions

Sam Pizzigati offers a reminder of how the Supreme Court aided the plutocracy in 2010 with its Citizens United decision.

(Donkey Hotey, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Sam Pizzigati

Americans with a favorite candidate in Tuesday’s congressional midterm elections might have thought about opening their wallets in the campaign’s final days. If they did, some may have found out — as soon as they moved to make an online contribution — that they could only open their wallets so wide.

Federal election law sets strict limits on how much you can contribute, as an individual, to your candidate of choice. That limit now stands at $2,900 per election.

Contribute more than that and you’ll be breaking the law. And you could face some hefty penalties, nearly $22,000 or even more depending on the specifics of your oversized contribution.

Wait. How can ordinary Americans face substantial penalties for contributing too much to their favorite candidates when we regularly see headlines about the multiple millions America’s wealthiest are legally investing in our elections?

USA Today, for instance, reported in October that U.S. billionaires had so far this election cycle dropped “nearly $675 million” into campaign coffers, “with almost all of that coming from the top 50 mega-rich givers.” Last month, The Washington Post put the total 2022 federal-level campaign cash from the nation’s 50 biggest donors at $1.1 billion.

Campaign dollars from billionaire pockets, data from the researchers at Open Secrets show, make up over 10 percent of all the dollars spent so far in 2022. Some perspective on that 10 percent-plus share: In the United States today, we have three billionaires for every million adults.

Billionaires haven’t paid any federal fines for all these contributions. They can spend as much as they would like to influence election outcomes, the Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 Citizens United decision, so long as they conduct their political business “independently” of individual candidate campaigns.

[The corrupt influence of money works on both major parties. Wall Street, for instance, donated $1.9 billion during the 2020 election, with 53 percent going to the Democrats. Joe Biden received $250 million in Wall Street money, and Donald Trump $103 billion.]

Super PACs

How does all this work out in practice? Consider the U.S. Senate campaign of GOP Senate hopeful Herschel Walker in Georgia. The biggest donor to Walker’s campaign, journalist Judd Legum points out, has been the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC run by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Sen. Mitch McConnell. (Donkey Hotey/Flickr)

McConnell’s Super PAC, in turn, gets its dollars from America’s super rich and the corporations they run, including $10 million each from private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman and hedge fund CEO Kenneth Griffin. But we still don’t know the Herschel Walker campaign’s full billionaire story. The largest single donor to McConnell’s Super PAC — a “nonprofit” known as One Nation — can legally keep its donors secret. Those donors have so far handed McConnell $33.5 million.

No billionaire has done more to exploit the political manipulation of rich people-friendly not-for-profits than Charles Koch, a deep pocket who, the Center for Media and Democracy notes, “controls a multibillion-dollar fleet of nonprofits that he and other wealthy business people have built into a massive influence machine over the past 20 years.”

Charles Koch caricature. (DonkeyHotey, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In the 2020 election cycle, the 28 organizations in this politically-minded Koch network spent a combined $1.1 billion. The billionaire has shuffled his groups around for the 2022 cycle.

“Frequent shifts in structure often correspond with election cycles,” observes Center for Media and Democracy analyst Connor Gibson. “The changes help keep Koch’s dark money organizational structure opaque.”

Billionaire Wisconsin Couple

The billionaire Wisconsin couple Elizabeth and Richard Uihlein share the Koch fondness for expressing themselves politically through multiple organizations. Their large donations this political cycle have so far totaled $70.2 million, not counting, The Washingon Post notes, any “direct independent expenditures” the Uihleins may have made.

Re-electing Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson has been, in the current election cycle, job one for the Uihleins. They’ve shoveled $5.8 million to his campaign through various channels. The Uihleins, all the while, have been rigorously observing the Federal Election Commission’s strict and meaningless limits on “individual giving.” They’ve each donated just $2,900 individually directly to the Johnson campaign.

The overall Uihlein investment in Johnson’s campaigning for office has, over the years, certainly had its rewards for Uline, their packaging-giant company. In 2018 alone, ProPublica reports, “a federal tax break for pass-through companies pushed by Sen. Johnson and made part of Trump’s 2017 tax cut legislation saved Uline $43.5 million in federal taxes.”

Plenty of other deep pockets can point to similar payoffs from their political activism. America’s rich and the corporations they run, writes political commentator and former adman Thom Hartmann, poured $7 billion into the 2016 elections and, just a year later, collected from the GOP congressional majority they helped elect “almost $2 trillion in tax breaks and another trillion in forgivable loans with few strings attached.”

For the wealthiest among us, plutocracy does most certainly pay.

Sam Pizzigati co-edits His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970.  Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.

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The views expressed are solely those of the authors and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

12 comments for “The Double Standard on US Campaign Contributions

  1. Bobok
    November 9, 2022 at 18:49

    Abort the Court.

  2. nwwoods
    November 9, 2022 at 16:40

    Notice how the democrats are tirelessly leveraging their political power in attempting to overturn Citizens United? Me neither.

  3. Renate
    November 9, 2022 at 10:50

    We can vote and contribute money, but it is not even enough to protect SS, health care, and education. No funds to forgive student loans but enough for billionaire tax cuts.
    Democracy, was there ever a real honest democracy? In the mid-term election, there was nothing to vote for, and all the elections before that.
    Most of the nation’s officials are shysters serving the wealthy shysters.

  4. WillD
    November 9, 2022 at 00:10

    Why bother with elections when the real determination of representation, and therefore power, comes from the wealthy donors? It’s not as if the elected representatives care about their electorates, except just before election time when they then start pretending again. Those few that genuinely care about their electorates don’t survive long, or become marginalised and ignored by their parties.

    Democracy, as it exists today, is a sham. It maintains the pretence but at the minimum levels necessary to keep the majority of voters believing, or should I say – hoping, that their votes matter.

    When Biden, and others, go on about ‘democracy versus autocracy’ I laugh at their hypocrisy. While the western countries aren’t autocracies, they are still just as undemocratic. Same difference, really – neither are democracies. Neither represent the people.

  5. John
    November 8, 2022 at 22:25

    What ordinary American can afford, let alone surpass, the $2900 individual cap in the first place?

  6. Crazy Talk
    November 8, 2022 at 20:19

    Eisenhower said beware of the Military-Industrialist Complex; that was 60 years ago.

  7. mgr
    November 8, 2022 at 17:54

    And for all this money look what you get, mediocrity; some short term, quick buck benefits and lots of long-term major losses as the quality of America’s elected leadership continues to sink below cesspool levels. As if any nation can long survive the mediocrity of its leadership once it passes a certain point. We now have a State department that is willing, seemingly anxious, to annihilate the planet in order to save face. And they call it patriotic. That seems like a red flag to me…

    The true crime here is not that such banal individuals exist. It’s that American culture as a whole, including its business and government ethics, allows such ridiculous, self-serving individuals to rise in power to where they can make life and death decisions for everyone else. Now, that is mediocre squared. I guess you get what you pay for, bullshit for bullshit…

  8. Paula
    November 8, 2022 at 16:39

    When the highest court in the land favors the rich in this way, it should tell anyone with a thinking brain that we no longer have a democracy and our vote will never count again. This country is going to a pack of dogs.

    • Renate
      November 9, 2022 at 10:54

      Did we ever have a democracy? It was always by and for the bourgeoise wealthy, at first big farmers and then industrialists.

  9. November 8, 2022 at 16:10

    Unusually unbalanced article given how much more Democrats have received in political contributions since the decision in Citizens United.

    • rgl
      November 8, 2022 at 22:55

      I think the abiding point here is the corporate ability to flood elections with influence bucks. It matters not how much more democrats have benefitted from CU than republicans, but that the spigot exists at all. Citizens United is a very large problem vis a vis the election process.

      I suppose the old saw still holds. Who pays, says.

  10. Vera Gottlieb
    November 8, 2022 at 16:02

    The slow, but sure, implosion of the US didn’t just start recently…

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