How Citizens United Changed Politics and Shaped the Tax Bill

Brennan Center for Justice:

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 “Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed…You control the Senate.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!