With the midterm election season ramping up, big money donors just gained even more influence, courtesy of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC.
In the McCutcheon decision, a 5-4 majority threw out the aggregate limits that capped an elite donor’s total contributions to candidates, parties and PACs in one election cycle at $123,200. With this limit scrapped, wealthy donors will be able to have an even bigger influence on politics. Just last week, Republicans created a new joint fundraising committee that would allow one donor to write a $100,000 check to be spread out among various committees.
What does this mean for the interests of everyday Americans? Let’s consider one example: raising the minimum wage.
There are plenty of big money interests going to bat against a minimum wage increase. Leading the lineup are the National Restaurant Association and its biggest members.
Out of 20 business trade associations that signed a recent letter opposing a minimum wage increase, the NRA distinguishes itself as the biggest direct political contributor since 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. During the past 25 years, the NRA and associated individuals have shelled out $12.7 million in federal contributions to candidates, candidate committees, and parties.
The NRA’s corporate members are big political spenders, too. Walt Disney, Coca-Cola and their associates have broken the $10 million threshold since 1989. Marriott, McDonald’s and Darden Restaurants (parent of Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Capital Grille) have each spent more than $5 million. And Wendy’s, Bloomin’ Brands (parent of Outback Steakhouse), and YUM! Brands (parent of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut) have all broken the $1 million mark.
The NRA’s spending shows a heavy partisan tilt: 83 percent to 17 percent in favor of Republicans, according to CRP. Some of its members are even more partisan: Bloomin’ Brands has given 92 percent of its contributions to Republicans.
Who’s cashing the biggest checks from the NRA and friends now, as the restaurant lobby presses its opposition to a minimum wage increase? The top Senate recipient of contributions from the food and beverage industry in the current election cycle is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has said there’s no “acceptable level” of minimum wage increase he’d support.
McConnell is no stranger to big money. He has received contributions from at least 62 billionaires over the years, and just a tiny fraction — less than 5 percent — of the money he raised in the fourth quarter of 2013 came in amounts of $200 or less.
Which brings us back to the McCutcheon ruling. McConnell filed a brief in the case arguing the Court should go beyond eliminating aggregate limits and scrap contribution limits altogether. While his position was too far out in left field even for the conservative members of the Roberts Court, the decision still sets the stage for further attacks on contribution limits.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around just how far apart the worlds of elite McCutcheon-level donors and minimum wage workers are. Consider this: A McDonald’s worker earning the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would have to work full-time for more than 8 years to reach the $123,200 contribution limit the court just threw out.
So what does the McCutcheon ruling mean for the minimum wage debate? It’s going to make it that much easier for politicians to ignore the voices and interests of minimum wage workers – and everyone else who doesn’t make it into the elite donor club. Research has already documented that the wealthy have a bigger influence over policy outcomes than average Americans. The McCutcheon decision promises to take this pattern of undue influence and put it on steroids.
McConnell’s financial backing and policy priorities illustrate the challenge. He proved with his argument to the Supreme Court that he’ll go to bat for elite donors like McCutcheon. But when low-wage workers look to make it home with a little more money in their pockets, the NRA, McDonald’s and other heavy hitters from the food and beverage industry know they can count on McConnell to block the plate.
McCutcheon, McConnell and McDonald’s — it’s a triple play against the interests of low-wage workers and it’s threatening to make a mockery of our democracy. That’s why we need, now more than ever, to enact reforms like small-donor public financing to establish that American democracy is a national pastime that belongs to us all, not a collector’s item for sale to the highest bidder.
LeeAnn Hall is the executive director of Community Organizations in Action, a national nonprofit advocacy organization that works with state groups to build campaigns for economic and racial equity. Rahna Epting is deputy executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving America’s campaign finance laws.