supreme court

Are lobbyists the biggest losers post-McCutcheon?

April 2, 2014: 2:36 PM ET

Good-government groups are decrying the Supreme Court's decision on political contributions. K Street isn't too happy about it, either.

By Tory Newmyer

FORTUNE -- The Supreme Court decision to strike down so-called aggregate limits on political contributions, issued this morning, was swiftly denounced by good-government groups as a coup for those deep-pocketed interests seeking to bend politicians to their will. But don't expect many lobbyists to be popping champagne corks. Despite representing some of those very deep-pocketed interests, lobbyists fret that the ruling could mean they'll be on the hook to hand over even more campaign cash to lawmakers.

The decision (McCutcheon v. FEC ) means that contributors formerly bound to give no more than $123,200 total in direct support to candidates and party committees over the course of this election cycle may now be able to spread around up to $3.5 million, according to an estimate by the Brennan Center for Justice.

J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement that the ruling shows the Court exhibits "a complete ignorance of political realities, or worse, chose to ignore those realities, in striking down laws written by Congress, which is intimately aware of the political corruption that will likely ensue in the wake of this decision." Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer added the decision just "re-created the system of legalized bribery today that existed during the Watergate days."

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They have a point, insofar as it extends to the politically inclined über-rich already reshaping the campaign finance landscape through free-spending Super PACs. But most lobbyists -- especially those hired guns not attached to a corporate office or trade association -- have much more limited means. They consider opening their wallets for pols to be a cost of doing business, a necessary chore to ensure the access that keeps them employed. But they don't relish it. "I would be surprised if anyone on K Street was looking for ways to spend more campaign money," veteran Democratic lobbyist Paul Equale says. "And this decision clearly opens the door for that." Popular conceit envisions lobbyists as predators bullying lawmakers, but the coercion reverses during fundraising crunch times. Witness this scene from my recent my recent profile of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a modern master of shaking down lobbyists for campaign cash:

His team built a fundraising strategy around that strength in the run-up to the last two elections. They invited Republican lobbyists to dinner with McConnell in a private room at Carmine's, a family-style Italian restaurant in downtown Washington, with no apparent price of admission. But after spaghetti and meatballs, McConnell thanked everyone for coming, told them he needed them to contribute the maximum allowable in personal money ($30,800 in 2012) to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and then sat back and waited. What followed was a long, pained silence, one of McConnell's preferred negotiating tools. Then, one after another, attendees acquiesced. Organizers called these "the sandbag dinners."

The decision won't allow McConnell to significantly up the ante if he repeats the tactic this year, because the Court left intact the limits on individual contributions to candidates ($2,600 each for the primary and general elections) and to party committees (now $32,300, since the figure is indexed to inflation). But it will destroy the excuse of any lobbyists who had already reached the aggregate limit that while they'd love to give more, the law says they can't.

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Under the old caps, an individual was limited to giving no more than $74,600 to all party committees during this election cycle. With that upper bound removed, a donor can now dole out roughly $1.1 million across the board to state and national party committees, according to Campaign Legal Center senior counsel Tara Malloy. Vanishingly few lobbyists could afford that kind of expense even if they wanted to. As it is, only one of the top 20 donors of direct campaign cash so far this cycle is employed full-time in the influence industry, an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics found. The rest -- hedge fund managers, real estate tycoons, energy barons -- indeed just inherited even more power at a time the rules were already strengthening their say in our elections. Their contracted help in Washington, meanwhile, are feeling a little poorer.

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