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Reporting on individual campaign donations now pointless

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That pricey apartment shout-show host Rush Limbaugh seeks to unload for about $14 million — you know, the gaudy palace with not one but two grand views of Central Park and environs — sits in zip code 10128, down by Fifth Avenue and 86th.

The 62,000 or so folks in that Upper East Side zip code who don’t rent live in domiciles worth, on average, just under a million bucks. And those people in 10128 have donated $1.7 million in the 2010 election cycle to federal candidates, national parties, or PACs. (Sorry, Rush: Your neighbors preferred Democratic entities.)

But the folks in 10128 are cheapskates compared with the real money farther south on Fifth Avenue. The 100,000-plus people who live in 10021 have given $3.3 million. In fact, eight zip codes surrounding Central Park rank in the top 20 zip codes nationally in political giving by individuals for this election cycle, their residents having coughed up $17.4 million. 10021, 10022 and 10024 are the top three individual donor zip codes in the nation.

I was going to tell you this a few months ago. I had intended to point out that zip codes in and around Washington, D.C., where the real money is, ponied up $22.9 million in this election cycle. I’d planned to tell you that individuals in the top 50 zip codes in the nation had so far contributed nearly $74 million to federal candidates or committees.

But these numbers summarizing individual donations direct to candidates or parties have become meaningless. That means I will likely end four years of writing about them.

The totals provided here, courtesy of the Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that aggregates Federal Election Commission records to make them easier to understand, represents donations exceeding $200 by individuals. Federal election law limits individual candidate contributions to $2,400, up to an aggregate total of $45,600 per election cycle. Individuals may also give an aggregated total of $69,900 to national parties and PACs per cycle. Bottom line: An individual may make $115,500 in campaign contributions per election cycle.

Well, that’s chicken feed now, so there’s no reason to write about campaign contributions by individuals any more.

You all know why: The Supreme Corporate Court of the United States struck down provisions of campaign-finance law in its 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, overruling precedents. (So much for stare decisis.) The bottom line: The government may not ban corporations from spending unlimited amounts of money on broadcast political ads prior to primary or general elections. (This is not the first episode of judicial activism by the “pro-corporate wing” of the Roberts Court.) Says The New York Times:

For the first time, though, as a result of the [Citizens United] ruling, corporations will be able to spend unlimited amounts of money on “electioneering communications” (i.e., broadcast advertisements) expressly advocating for a candidate’s election or defeat. While the court upheld the ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidates, it also clears the way, for the first time, for corporations to donate money to nonprofit groups that place advocacy advertisements.

But, because the Supreme Court has not yet struck down the remainder of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, corporations may spend limitless money on ads supporting or opposing candidates while individual contributors continue to face limits on their donations direct to candidates or parties.

That means all those donations by folks in the top 50 zip codes for this election cycle — $74 million and counting — are small change now. Those who used to be big players in the Election Power Grab Sweepstakes are now bit players. Corporations — those newly minted artificial beings with more power than individual human beings — can outspend them.

In fact, perhaps many of those well-to-do folks in the zip codes surrounding Central Park, those able to afford that $115,500 aggregate limit, might be high-ranking executives of corporations. Maybe they’ll just stop donating as individuals and leave it to the corporation to pay the advertising freight charges to influence election outcomes.

The Screw Democracy Game™ — spend large amounts of money on behalf of political parties and candidates with expectations of a beneficial return on that investment — has changed, it seems. We’ll know for sure as the 2010 mid-term elections near. To what extent will corporations pour money into television advertising to support candidates they prefer? Will they overtly or covertly threaten candidates holding positions unfavorable to business and corporations by dumping millions into advertising support for those candidates’ opponents?

Will Congress require full, public disclosure of direct corporate (or union) spending on “electioneering communications” (even though they may be unlimited financially) and include immediate online disclosure? Will Congress mandate a “I’m the CEO, and I approved this message” tag for corporation-funded, televised political ads? Will Congress close the door that allows corporations (and unions) to hide massive financial support of political entities by passing corporate (or union) money anonymously through nonprofit civic leagues and trade associations? Says The Times:

That means that those nonprofit groups, which are not required to disclose their donors, can now use corporate contributions to buy political commercials, and the corporations can potentially operate behind the anonymity of their donations. [emphasis added]

The Court’s ruling means it has become useless for me to continue to root through the records in the FEC’s database of individual donations to candidates, parties or PACs. Similarly, how useful will be such data aggregated by categories provided by the Center for Responsive Politics? True, the center is “a clearinghouse for data and analysis on multiple aspects of money in politics—the independent interest groups called 527s committees, federal lobbying, Washington’s ‘revolving door’, privately sponsored congressional travel and the personal finances of members of Congress, the president and other officials.” It will continue to provide an important public service. Perhaps it will find a way to track this new, unlimited spending on “electioneering communications.”

But in light of five men’s decision to dramatically change the face of election financing, the role I’ve played — finding out what individuals gave how much to whom with what effect — appears pointless.

Political advantage is gained or lost through television advertising. Corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of money on such advertising to influence the outcome of elections with more effect than an individual’s maximum donation of $115,500 direct to candidates or parties can accomplish. More importantly, corporations have the legal means to hide that spending.

But, supporters of the Court’s decision argue, individuals can spend on broadcast political ads without limit, too. They are only constrained on direct donations to candidates or parties.

Yes, if you, as an individual, are sufficiently wealthy, you may spend unlimited money on “electioneering communications” just as corporations now can. But can you, the wealthy individual, match the political ad spending of the wealthy corporation? Or corporations, plural?

This means sorting through aggregations of FEC data on individual campaign contributions has lost interest for me.

Now I need ideas, new techniques, to track all this corporate money that will be spent on “electioneering communications.” Suggestions, dear readers?

xpost: Scholars and Rogues


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

March 16, 2010 at 11:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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