Lobbyists fear shakedown if Supreme Court lifts campaign contributions cap

Lobbyists who are active on Washington’s fundraising circuit fear a shakedown is coming if the Supreme Court lifts the cap on contributions to lawmakers and party committees.

The high court last week decided to hear a challenge to the aggregate limit on how much a donor can contribute each election cycle. Many court observers expect the justices to abolish the cap and free individuals to donate to as many candidates as they wish.

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That would be a groan-inducing development on K Street, where lobbyists are already bombarded with requests to attend fundraisers and contribute to campaigns.

“I should be careful about what I ask for, but I do not believe it would be possible to receive more fundraiser invitations,” said Pat Raffaniello, a principal in Raffaniello & Associates. “The fundraisers do not check to see if a donor is at the limit, they just keep sending. Once you contribute to almost anyone, your info is sold or shared on donor lists, which gets you more solicitations.”

The influence industry has long been a reliable fundraising source for members of Congress. Lobbyists dutifully fill their social calendars with breakfasts, lunches and dinners where they forge relationships with members and talk shop.

At least 372 fundraising events have been scheduled since Jan. 1, according to the Sunlight Foundation, with 38 of them planned for this week alone.

But lobbyists who help lawmakers in their dash for cash are quick to note that they don’t command the same financial resources as the ultra-wealthy donors who power outside groups. The cap on campaign contributions — which was set at $123,200 for the 2014 cycle — has given them a ready-made excuse for turning down fundraising appeals.

“I like the limit because it gives me an excuse not to give more,” said one Republican lobbyist. “If there was no limit, I would give more. Not $100,000 more, but more like $40,000 or $50,000 more.”

Tony Podesta, who is a major Democratic fundraiser and chairman of the Podesta Group, said ending the cap would likely increase the pressure on lobbyists to pony up.

“The ceiling is helpful to fend off entreaties from candidates who need more money,” he said. “If the limits were invalidated, it could create a real problem.”

“I had a friend who would max out very early in the cycle — give away all his money in the first two months — so he could say, ‘you’re too late,’ to the candidates.”

Podesta and Raffaniello are among an elite cadre of lobbyists who contribute nearly the maximum amount to candidates every election cycle.

Raffaniello gave more than $108,000 in campaign contributions during the 2012 cycle, slightly below the aggregate limit of $117,000, according to data compiled for The Hill by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). That made him one of K Street’s top 25 donors for the 2012 campaign, according to CRP.

Podesta gave more than $114,000 to candidate, party and political action committees during the last cycle, CRP found.

What’s not being challenged at the Supreme Court is contribution limits for individual candidates and party committees, which were capped at $2,600 for candidates and at $32,400 for party committees for the 2014 cycle.

The McCutcheon vs. FEC case, named after the plaintiff, Alabama GOP donor Shaun McCutcheon, deals with the aggregate contribution limit for donors.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) has partnered with McCutcheon in the lawsuit.

If the aggregate limit is ruled void by the court, Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, predicts joint fundraising committees will be used to solicit million-dollar checks that could be spread between candidates and national and state parties through transfers.

“You can give one check and the recipient takes care of how it is distributed,” Wertheimer said. 

 Lobbyists envision a similar scenario. 

“If the limit is eliminated, I think you will see a proliferation of joint fundraising committees,” Raffaniello said. “The members who are good fundraisers and politically savvy will offer their less successful colleagues a chance to tap the ‘star power’ and reach into the lead member’s donor base.”

That practice could help the two national parties compete with independent groups like super-PACs that can raise unlimited amounts, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.

 Lobbyists have traditionally contributed more to candidates and parties than super-PACs, making them the likely target of increased fundraising appeals.

“Eliminating limits would provide more opportunities for lobbyists to speak with their money, given that they tend to support candidates and parties than super-PACs,” said Sarah Bryner, CRP’s research director.

Removing the overall cap could end the competition between the Democratic and Republican parties for donor cash.

“Right now, the national committees have to compete with each other. If the aggregate contribution limit was struck down, they wouldn’t have to compete with each other anymore,” said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who co-chairs Wiley Rein’s election law group.

“They could all get a full $32,400. All three of them could on each side of the aisle.”

Critics of the lawsuit say the court’s decision could further entrench the power of special interests on Capitol Hill. Without a cap, a lobbyist could hypothetically write a check for the maximum $2,600 to all 535 members of Congress.

“This is going to provide the biggest donors with the opportunity to use very huge contributions to buy influence over government decisions,” Wertheimer said. “There is no way you can ask a donor to give $1 million or $2 million without opening the door to government corruption.”

Lobbyists dismiss that contention, and say they are supporting their political beliefs by contributing money.

“I’m not seeking influence. I’m contributing to people who I know and respect,” said Wayne Berman, a long-time Republican fundraiser and lobbyist. “The only thing that big givers get is a lot of photographs on their wall.”

This story was updated on Feb. 27 to clarify the data on Tony Podesta's campaign donations.