Campaign Finance

Stopping the "Corporate Takeover" of Politics, One Corporate-Funded Gala at a Time

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Quick addition re: that New York Times investigation of the Congressional Black Caucus, blogged earlier by Nick Gillespie. You will be relieved to learn that fully half the CBC's members have signed on as co-sponsors of the post-Citizens United Fair Elections Now Act, which promises to "stop the corporate takeover" of our politics.

The Times story portrays much of this stuff through the lens of corporations buying votes, but it's important to remember three other things: 1) The business of nonprofits is making sales calls to donors. Altria probably wouldn't have ponied up a bunch of money to pay off the CBC's mortgage if the CBC hadn't, you know, asked. 2) There are few more advantageous fundraising positions for a nonprofit to be in than being explicitly tied to the apparatus that writes all federal laws. And 3) funneling corporate money to other politically favored nonprofits is one of the classic ways politicians create patronage systems composed of sucker-fish NGOs. It is a little-understood reality of modern politics, and it is pervasive.

That the same people would in the same breath decry the "corporate takeover" of politics and support laws that criminalize individual acts of speech makes a kind of practical sense: If Altria (hypothetically) is going to spend $10 million on federal politicking this year, better that the money be at the politicians' disposal, rather than used independently to make an argument using media. Too cynical? Let's remember former Federal Elections Chairman Brad Smith's classic 2005 Reason piece on the nonprofit activities by none other than John McCain. Excerpt:

Prediction: This image will provoke a discussion in the comments that has zero to do with the post

In 2001 the Brennan Center, a group that advocates campaign finance reform, held a large fund-raising dinner whose honored guest and speaker was the "straight-talking" senator from Arizona. Several big corporations–many with interests before the Senate Commerce Committee, of which Sen. McCain was then the ranking minority member–sponsored the event. These sponsors included such companies as Coca-Cola; the investment firm Bear Stearns; many top law firms with lobbying practices in Washington; cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris–yes, Big Tobacco; and even Enron, which as we know is the most evil corporation in the history of the world. The event grossed an impressive $750,000.

Now what does the Brennan Center do? Well, the Brennan Center lobbied extensively to pass the McCain-Feingold bill, an issue that Sen. McCain once declared was of "transcendent importance to me." […] The Brennan Center also provided legal services, pro bono, to defend the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold bill in court.

So let's put this together: The Brennan Center invites Sen. McCain to speak and then approaches a large number of corporations, perhaps saying something like, "Sen. McCain–the ranking minority member of the Commerce Committee, before which your company has a great deal of business, and a possible future presidential candidate–is coming to speak. Would you care to sponsor a table?" And Enron and Coca-Cola and Philip Morris just suddenly decide that they are very interested in campaign reform and kick in some good old soft money, which the Brennan Center uses to lobby and provide free legal services for an issue of "transcendent importance" to none other than Sen. McCain. Appearance of corruption, anyone?

Wouldn't suggesting that corporations support the Brennan Center to provide legislative support to Sen. McCain on the issue that made his national reputation carry the same potential for blackmail and favoritism as corporate donations to political campaigns? Yet there is no suggestion that we should have broad prophylactic prohibition of that kind of fund raising–despite the fact that doing so would not only address this very real "appearance of corruption"; it would do much less to infringe on the free speech of the citizenry than McCain's treasured campaign finance restrictions.

Read that whole Smith piece here. As always, if you want less corporate influence on politics, then give the government less influence on our lives.