(CN) – Though Citizens United has not led to massive corporate spending on elections, the now 5-year-old Supreme Court ruling has allowed a few wealthy donors to dominate campaign spending through super PACs, new studies found.
When the sharply divided high court overturned a key section of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act in 2000 to rule that the First Amendment protects unlimited spending by corporations on political elections, critics feared it would open the door to corporate bankrolling of campaigns.
According to a new report on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission by the Brennan Center for Justice, however, this focus on corporations was misplaced.
“Although their influence has increased, for-profit corporations have not been the most visible beneficiaries of the Court’s jurisprudence,” the report states. “Instead – thanks to super PACs and a variety of other entities that can raise unlimited funds after Citizens United – the biggest money (that can be traced) has come from an elite club of wealthy mega-donors.”
One hundred and ninety-five wealthy donors and their spouses make up this elite group, which has funded nearly 60 percent of the $1 billion in super-PAC spending since Citizens United, according to the report.
A separate Brennan Center report also released last week found that, in the 10 most competitive U.S. Senate races in 2014, outside groups account for 47 percent of spending. Candidates were outspent by outside groups in eight of the 10 races.
At the same time as spending by the wealthiest Americans has greatly increased, the total number of small donors giving $200 or less has fallen.
“In 2014, the top 100 donors to super PACs spent as much as all 4.75 million small donors combined,” the five-year review of Citizens United says.
Of the 10 highest-spending super PACs in 2014, all but two got less than 1 percent of their funding from small donors.
“In short, thanks to the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, a tiny sliver of Americans now wield more power than at any time since Watergate, while many of the rest seem to be disengaging from politics,” the report states. “This is perhaps the most troubling result of Citizens United: in a time of historic wealth inequality, the decision has helped reinforce the growing sense that our democracy primarily serves the interests of the wealthy few, and that democratic participation for the vast majority of citizens is of relatively little value.”
Daniel Weiner, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, is the author of the five-year review. Ian Vandewalker, another attorney for that program, wrote the report on Senate spending.
A bipartisan provision of this year’s budget bill may effectively eliminate campaign contribution limits to parties. The provision would allow a single donor to give up to $324,000 per year to the Democratic or Republican Parties.
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