Feb. 7, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Rules of the Game: Debate Over Corporate Spending Spans Parallel Universes

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the American Enterprise Institute last month that “not a single Fortune 100 company contributed a penny to the eight super PACs that supported the Republican primary candidates.”

Are big corporations taking over American elections? It depends whether you ask liberals or conservatives, who can’t even agree on the basic facts.

In the liberal universe, big corporations have swallowed politics. Common Cause President Bob Edgar summed up this version of reality at a press conference in March, declaring: “We, the people, will not stand idly by while the country’s major corporations use their massive wealth to buy our democracy.”

In the parallel universe occupied by conservatives, leading corporations are actually playing no role at all in the elections, which are thriving post-Citizens United. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued this case at the American Enterprise Institute last month, asserting that “not a single Fortune 100 company contributed a penny to the eight super PACs that supported the Republican primary candidates.”

There’s plenty of room for disagreement over whether unrestricted political money helps or hurts campaigns and whether fixes such as full disclosure would work. But when starting points differ so wildly, it’s time to set the record straight. No matter how you slice it, corporations are spending unprecedented sums in this campaign.

To be sure, McConnell’s argument contains a grain of truth. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that deregulated political spending, it turns out that the big money is coming from individuals, not corporate treasuries.

A February analysis by a pair of progressive groups found that 17 percent (more than $30 million) of the money that super PACs raised post-Citizens United came from for-profit businesses. The largest share — 56 percent — came from wealthy individuals, according to the study by Demos and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which will be updated later this month.

“The rhetoric has been way overblown,” said conservative election lawyer James Bopp Jr.

But GOP talking points that downplay the role of big business after Citizens United omit major routes for corporate campaign spending. These include the tens of millions that corporate CEOs from the casino, real estate, energy and financial services industries have given to super PACs this cycle.

Also missing from the conservative narrative are politically active nonprofits, from the Democratic-friendly Priorities USA to the pro-GOP Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, which are spending millions of dollars collected from undisclosed donors ­— many of which could well be big corporations.

Last month, SNL Financial disclosed that Aetna had donated more than $3.3 million to the American Action Network in 2011, and another nearly $4.5 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — two nonprofits spending heavily in targeted Congressional races. That prompted a complaint from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to the IRS.

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