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Time to Put the Political Spending Horse Before the Lobbying Cart | Commentary

By Marian Currinder Things are out of whack in Washington, according to critics, because corporations spend more on lobbying expenditures than taxpayers spend to fund the Congress. This view is itself out of balance, however, because it underplays the corporate spending that helps elect lawmakers while opening the door to the relationships that are so crucial for lobbying.  

Today, corporate spending on political electioneering is not only surging — like lobbying expenditures — but it is increasingly made up of anonymous “dark money.” That makes it near impossible, to paraphrase Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in Citizens United, for shareholders to tell whether their corporation’s political speech advances its profit-making interest, or for citizens to check which moneyed interests are supporting their elected officials.  

Because this spending poses a threat to companies and our democracy, it warrants close attention and action. Interestingly, this kind of aggressive engagement of American businesses and trade associations in elective politics appears central to an historic paper that Lee Drutman, author of “The Business of America is Lobbying,” cites in describing the evolution of business lobbying.  

In a now-famous 1971 memorandum, Lewis F. Powell Jr., a leading corporate lawyer who would become a Supreme Court justice, claimed that “(a)s every business executive knows, few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American business, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders. If one doubts this let him undertake the role of ‘lobbyist’ for the business point of view before Congressional committees.”  

There’s a greater scope to what Powell was arguing, however. He did not dwell on lobbying. Rather, he discussed the importance of business interests no longer avoiding “confrontational politics,” assuming instead a higher profile in direct “political action.” He advised, “Business must learn the lesson” learned far earlier by labor and others “that political power is necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination.” Business should not be reluctant, he added, “to penalize politically those who oppose” the American enterprise system.  

Fast-forward to 2015, more than four decades later. The landscape of political giving to support and to “penalize” politicians has been transformed, and American corporations are major players in confrontational politics. Business interests are the dominant spenders in federal elections with an advantage over competing voices of about 15-to-1.  

The 2014 congressional elections, for example, cost $3.77 billion. Business was responsible for close to half of that amount, or $1.65 billion. Labor contributions in the 2014 election cycle, by contrast, added up to $140 million.  

There is no shortage of research linking political contributions with access to politicians. Jennifer Brown of Arizona State University found that companies pursuing a long-term, contribution-based approach to building relationships with lawmakers fare better in lowering their tax rates than companies that relied chiefly on lobbying. Contributions buy a point of entry and, over time, regular access for those who lobby.  

Two years ago, University of California at Berkeley researchers found that donors are more likely to gain high-level access to members of Congress and staff than are their constituents who haven’t paid. More recently, two Stanford professors studied patterns of giving to current and former congressional committee members and reported “evidence that corporations and business PACs use donations to acquire immediate access and favor — suggesting they at least anticipate that the donations will influence policy.”  

Unlike company expenditures for lobbying (at least at the federal level), which must be disclosed, a soaring proportion of political electioneering spending is hidden. Since Citizens United in 2010 lifted restraints on “independent expenditures” to support or oppose candidates, the decision’s top beneficiaries have included business-connected trade associations and 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups that are politically active.  

Accordingly, more than $169 million in political “dark money” was reported spent in the 2014 election cycle, and a striking 73 percent ($124 million) was spent by conservative groups that receive corporate contributions. These groups spent more in a single election cycle than liberal groups have spent in the aggregate since 2000, a period of seven election cycles. And when corporations make secret political contributions, shareholders have no way of knowing if they do so consistently with company policies.  

Today, the overemphasis on money spent to lobby politicians distracts attention from money spent to elect them to office. It’s imperative to focus foremost on transparency and accountability for the political money that puts politicians in office because election losers don’t get lobbied.  

Marian Currinder is the associate director of the Center for Political Accountability and is the author of "Money in the House: Campaign Funds and Congressional Party Politics" and co-author of "Congress in Context." The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.