You're not going to believe this, but corporate executives love to donate money to political campaigns. Well, they don't necessarily love it, but they prefer it to the alternative - having no impact on elections and ultimately, policy. While it's true that elections in the United States are purely democratic, and that a Wall Street CEO's vote counts as much as a welfare recipient's, a well-financed candidate does have an unmistakable advantage over a candidate who receives less in donations. The former can afford better advertising production, print more flyers and put more miles on his campaign bus. Those little differences can turn a weak candidate of sufficient malleability from a non-entity to a primary winner to an officeholder, all in short order. Grassroots candidates still exist - Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul continues to draw millions of dollars from private citizens - but such candidates rarely succeed on the national stage.
Cutting Big Checks
So, which corporations cut the largest checks with "influence" written in the memo field? At the top of the list is a company that was disassembled and sold for parts as a result of the biggest antitrust case in history - AT&T. The former monopoly, now known to a new generation exclusively as a mobile provider, has donated close to $50 million to candidates of both parties over the last 22 years, according to OpenSecrets.org. Not surprisingly, for a company with tens of millions of customers and a public image to uphold, AT&T's donation breakdown by party has been close to even. The company's largest individual recipient in the last election cycle was John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House; but the next name on the list is that of President Obama, a Democrat.
Here's something that'll delight both Democrat and Republican fans of investment bankers receiving taxpayer largesse: Over the same period listed above, the next most "generous" company in America is Goldman Sachs (to the extent that it's easy to donate money to incumbent candidates who direct just under $13 billion in taxpayer money your way according to USA Today.) The infamous Wall Street charity case donated over $37 million to political campaigns, its most recent large beneficiary being Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (again, followed by President Obama). If you wonder why an entity would donate money to both the incumbent and to his presumptive opponent, instead of just donating to neither … unfortunately, that's politics.
Citigroup received $25 billion in 2008's Troubled Asset Relief Program, according to the Wall Street Journal, making it easy to return a small percentage of such in political donations. Citigroup's two largest recent individual recipients, like Goldman Sachs's, are also Romney and Obama (in the same order.) Citigroup's donations are split almost exactly down the middle between the parties.
What can brown do for you? Plenty of green, if you're sufficiently connected. United Parcel Service is second only to AT&T among non-TARP beneficiaries on the list of corporate political donors, and is fourth overall. UPS focuses on races further down the ballot, and in more modest amounts. In the last year it specialized in four-digit donations, and those almost exclusively to candidates for the House of Representatives. Not surprisingly, almost all of that money went to incumbents. There's a reason why turnover on Capitol Hill is about as infrequent as it was in the old Soviet Politburo.
No major corporate contributor quite skews its donations to one party as does the next company on the list, Altria. The maker of cigarette brands such as Marlboro and Benson & Hedges, Altria gave $18.7 million to Republican candidates and about $7 million to Democratic candidates. Perhaps tobacco companies are less interested in public perception than are the other companies who split their donations evenly. Altria could afford to sow some political goodwill after the colossal $246 billion tobacco settlements of 1998.
If there's anything noteworthy about the corporations that donate the most money to political candidates, it's how few industries they represent and which industries are largely absent. Two of the next three on the list are yet more investment banks (and TARP recipients), JPMorgan Chase at $24 million and Morgan Stanley at $22 million. They sandwich Microsoft, the defendant in one of the largest cases ever undertaken by the Department of Justice. Fellow tech mammoths Google and Apple remain largely absent. In order, the next few companies that appear are investment bank Morgan Stanley, media conglomerate Time Warner, then Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Lockheed Martin, General Electric, Verizon and Bank of America.
The Bottom Line
Again, we're only discussing donations from corporations to candidates. Which doesn't even begin to cover all the political money in the system. We're excluding corporate executives' personal donations, and those to entities other than candidates. If a high-powered CEO wants to donate a few million to a political action committee, or a party's own Senatorial or Congressional campaign committee, it doesn't show on our list.
If there's a lesson to take from this, it's that everyone has an agenda - and in a constitutional republic, money is the most efficient way to get that agenda into the consciousness of the decision makers.