Big Business, campaign finance, campaign finance reform, Center for Political Accountability, dark money, elections, free speech, Im-Politic, lobbying, money in politics, politics, Standard & Poor's 500, transparency
Although I’m hesitant for free speech reasons to support sweeping bans on corporate (or any special interest) money in politics, like many Americans, I suspect, I’d like to see a lot less of it. So I’m pleased to report some good news on this front: a study purporting to show that many of America’s largest companies (all members of the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index), are reducing and even actually halting various types of political spending (including on lobbying).
The study, from the non-profit Center for Political Accountability, claims that 14 members of the S&P 500 have adopted “clear policies that prohibited the use of corporate assets to influence elections and asked third parties not to use company payments for election-related purposes.” Among them are some real surprises (at least to me) – like Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs, big defense contractor Northrup Grumman, energy kingpins Hess and Schlumberger, and IBM from the tech sector. (The full list is on p. 56.)
Just as important, the authors state that since 2015, “there has been a steady rise in the number of S&P 500 companies that have placed prohibitions on election-related spending.” Specifically, the study reports, between 2015 and so far in 2021, the number of these large, publically held companies that has stopped what the Federal Election Commission calls “independent” expenditures (spending for or against specific candidates not made in coordination with any such candidates or their representatives or political parties) has more than doubled – from 83 to 176.
As for companies barring non-independent spending on candidates, parties, and committees, they’ve increased from 84 to 136. Companies no longer contributing to “527 groups” (see here for the definition) are up from 65 to 118. Businesses that have had it with spending for or against various ballot measures have increased from 50 to 75. Those not contributing to organizations responsible for triggering the flow of “dark money” into American politics now number 71, versus 31 in 2015, and the growth in the number not even funding trade associations is from 20 to 47.
The Center attributes these trends mainly to business’ mounting reluctance to expose themselves to backlash from customers and shareholders for taking political stances in the current national environment of “unrest and angry political conflict” and “hyper-partisan politics.” The report adds that one reason companies feel more vulnerable is that many have been making public ever more information about their political and policy spending.
That greater transparency is definitely welcome. But I’m happier about the overall pullback in political spending. Not that all such activities are intrinsically concerning (much less should be outlawed). After all, if Big Businesses are being affected by existing public policies, or are bound to be, why shouldn’t they be able to argue their case to politicians and the public (especially when they make such lobbying, and the funding it requires, public)?
As the study also makes clear, however, although fewer Big Businesses are engaged in political and policy spendings, many more keep opening their coffers. Moreover, the report doesn’t say anything about actual corporate spending levels. In theory, although fewer big companies are contributing resources, those that still are may be spending much more. So it’s not like the corporate sector’s influence is going to be eliminated, or even close, any time soon.
But despite the legality and/or legitimacy of corporate money in politics and policy, there can’t be any reasonable doubt that these enormous resources give companies the kind of power that most individuals – and most other interest groups – can’t hope to match.
Therefore, I can’t help but believe that the less corporate actors putting their thumbs on the scales throughout Washington, D.C. and state and local capitols, the fairer and more representative our politics and government will be – and that the Center for Political Accountability’s findings are an especially terrific Thanksgiving gift.