The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How megadonors circumvent laws to give huge checks to politicians

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a fundraiser in Salem, N.H., on Jan. 28. (Cheryl Senter for The Washington Post)
5 min

The corrupting influence of big political donors has become a rare area of bipartisan agreement. Fifty-five percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats say “reducing the influence of money in politics” should be a top concern for Congress.

But that’s not stopping America’s megadonors. In fact, wealthy contributors have been increasingly pumping cash into the political system — circumventing campaign finance laws in doing so.

Overall, political spending has ballooned in recent years:

One big reason for this has been an innovation known as “joint fundraising committees.” Both parties use them. And their influence is growing.

Like “mortgage-backed security” or “civil asset forfeiture,” these committees use jargon to hide some often unseemly practices. Here’s how they work: Election laws try to limit the influence of any one rich person by capping how much the individual can donate to a given candidate. In 2020, individuals could give no more than $5,600 directly to Joe Biden or Donald Trump. That’s a tidy sum, but it’s not enough to curry favor with Biden, who amassed more than a billion dollars in the 2020 election, or Trump, whose haul surpassed $800 million.

Joint fundraising committees render such limits meaningless. They allow presidential candidates to bring their campaign, their national party and state parties into a single fundraising entity. Donors can give a limited amount to each group, but -- thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in McCutcheon v. FEC — they can hit the contribution limit for as many groups as they want.

The result: The maximum donation to these mega-committees is not $5,600. It’s the combined maximum for each participating group.

This is how two donors were able to cut $817,800 checks to Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee run by the former president in 2020. Multiple donors gave $730,600 to the Biden Victory Fund. Both campaigns amassed hundreds of millions of dollars this way.

This would be less troubling if the checks were distributed fairly among the disparate groups within the joint committees. But in practice, much of the money flows to the national party.

The Post’s Chris Zubak-Skees calculates that, in 2016, for example, state-level Republican parties sent 90 percent of their cut of the Trump Victory Fund to the Republican National Committee. In 2020, they sent 96 percent to the RNC. Meanwhile, Democratic state parties sent three-quarters of their haul from the Hillary Victory Fund to the DNC in 2016. In 2020, state parties gave about a quarter of their take to the DNC.

And, unlike super PACs — which can raise and spend infinite sums but can’t legally coordinate messaging strategy with candidates — joint fundraising committees allow politicians to have direct control over these pooled funds.

That gives large donors ever-greater power to buy influence with candidates. As Brendan Doherty, a political scientist at the Naval Academy, told me, “Joint fundraising encourages presidents to raise money in even larger amounts from high-dollar donors. That, in turn, has led to them spending more time at fundraisers with people who can cut ever larger checks.”

And candidates love these fundraisers. Between October 2017 and mid-February 2020, The Post found that Trump attended “at least 48 intimate gatherings with the Republican Party’s elite donors” where ticket prices “can range from $50,000 to six figures per person.” And while America was in lockdown, then-candidate Biden often solicited six-digit checks from Silicon Valley and Wall Street donors via Zoom.

It’s impossible to know with certainty whether billionaires try to influence politicians in these intimate settings. But what are people outside the room supposed to think?

Fred Wertheimer, the president of the reform group Democracy 21, says simple changes could improve the system. One example: Congress could cap the number of committees that can fundraise together. If a joint fundraising committee included just two groups, the maximum contribution would stay low, and rich donors would have one less option to get into the pockets of politicians. Wertheimer also advocates for overhauling the Federal Election Commission to increase its enforcement capabilities by streamlining its operations and bulking up its staff.

Of course, campaign finance policy is littered with difficult trade-offs. As Doherty noted, if politicians were no longer able to solicit big checks directly from billionaires, they might spend more time soaking medium-dollar donors — and even less time governing.

But fundraising is an arms race. Both sides are terrified of being outspent by the other, and they’ll do almost anything to stay ahead. Politicians might save time in the short term by focusing on lucrative donors. But they still need to keep fundraising through other means to stay ahead in the long term.

In the end, reforming how joint fundraising committees operate won’t stop the deluge of funds pouring into our political system from moneyed interests. Any solution to America’s campaign finance woes must address super PACs, too.

But Americans know that democracy is drowning in cash. They want to throw it a lifeline. Reforming joint fundraising committees would be a solid first step.