Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
Now that the Supreme Court has eliminated the cap on the total amount one individual can give to candidates in each election, many are wondering how the very rich will respond.
If they spread their money across a wider swath of lawmakers, would that improve their chances of passing the legislation they want?
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson could be the first test case.
Expanding One's Reach Across Congress
Adelson is pushing a bill through Congress that would ban online gambling, and he has pledged he will spend "whatever it takes."
The Supreme Court has ruled that a donor can now give the maximum $5200 to as many candidates as he or she wants. Adelson could certainly afford to max out with every single member of Congress – if he wanted to.
As head of the Sands casino empire, Adelson has a personal fortune worth at least $38 billion. He's become possibly the most influential campaign donor in the country. After dumping $100 million into the 2012 election, he vows he'll throw even more into 2016.
But when it comes to pushing legislation, Wednesday's Supreme Court decision offers a new tool to the richest people lobbying on the Hill – a way to widen the reach of their power.
"It allows them to connect more closely to more members of Congress and other decision-makers in order to try to influence their votes on important legislation for those donors," says Bob Biersack at the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
An email to Adelson's political team asking whether the billionaire now plans to expand the breadth of his donations on the Hill went unanswered by the time of publication.
Adelson and his political team say their beef with online gambling isn't about protecting his casinos from competition – it's a moral fight. It's about shielding children and the poor from gambling addiction and exploitation.
"Gambling is a vice and is something that should be done in a limited way, like alcohol, like many things. And it's something that should not be available to everyone all the time," said Andy Abboud, Adelson's top political advisor.
The Money's Already Flowing
Congress has already kicked into gear against online gambling, and the senator leading the charge has received tens of thousands of dollars this election cycle from Adelson and his family – Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
"Well, I don't know how much money he gave me, but I'm doing this bill because it makes sense to me to regulate chaos," says Graham.
Last week, Graham introduced a bill Adelson's lobbyists helped write. The senator's never been a visible critic of online gambling before, but Graham says fighting it now is a win-win situation. It will make his good friend happy, and it will make social conservatives back home happy.
"Sheldon and the Baptists are one with this. The Baptists in South Carolina and Sheldon have become one person on this idea," says Graham. "You know, I'm sure the people in Vegas have different financial interests, but from my point of view, this is really easy politics for me back in South Carolina."
Adelson's political advisor Abboud says the senator's allegiance has nothing to do with the big checks he's gotten from the billionaire.
"To try and think that there's any link between a campaign contribution and legislation is a false notion," says Abboud. "There's no connection between financial support for Lindsey Graham and the bill sponsorship."
Still, Adelson and his team have made it clear — they will spare no expense in this fight. Last year, Adelson spent $320,000 lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That's just a speck of dust for the casino magnate, and his opponents know it.
"We don't have $38 billion," said Jan Jones Blackhurst, the head of government relations at Caesars Entertainment. She says online gambling could actually attract new players and boost business. That's one of the reasons Caesars helped launch a counter-offensive to kill the bill. But even a big player like Caesars is feeling a bit intimidated.
"Certainly, you don't like to be going up against Goliath when you're David," says Blackhurst.
And under the Supreme Court's new ruling, Goliath could become even bigger and scarier than before.