Corporate Hijacking of Our Elections Is Well Under Way, with Foreign Companies Chipping in to Destroy Our Democracy

This week, an investigation by the ThinkProgress revealed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- once just a conservative-leaning business group that’s been transformed into a heavy political cudgel for the corporate Right under the leadership of president Thomas Donohue -- has been raising money from overseas companies to defeat American candidates.  

That’s a violation of the law, but according to the report, “while the Chamber will likely assert it has internal controls,” money “is fungible, permitting the Chamber to run its unprecedented attack campaign. According to legal experts … the Chamber is likely skirting longstanding campaign finance law that bans the involvement of foreign corporations in American elections.” 

In recent years, the Chamber has become very aggressive with its fundraising, opening offices abroad and helping to found foreign chapters (known as Business Councils or “AmChams”). While many of these foreign operations include American businesses with interests overseas, the Chamber has also spearheaded an effort to raise money from foreign corporations, including ones controlled by foreign governments. These foreign members of the Chamber send money either directly to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, or the foreign members fund their local Chamber, which in turn, transfers dues payments back to the Chamber’s H Street office in Washington DC. 

The Chamber has pledged to spend a whopping $75 million this year to defeat candidates who supported health care reform, new financial regulations and a laundry list of other measures of which the Chamber’s leadership doesn’t approve. On Tuesday, the grassroots advocacy group asked the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation into the practice. 

The Chamber’s spending is just the tip of the iceberg. Elections have consequences. And this November, we’ll witness one devastating consequence of the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. It was Bush who appointed John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, resulting in a bench that, as Dahlia Lithwick wrote this week, has “taken the law for a sharp turn to the ideological right, while at the same time masterfully concealing it.” 

Arguably, the Roberts court’s most brazen right-wing judicial activism came in its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which, based on a long stretch of the First Amendment, killed limits on “electioneering” ads run by special interests in the period leading up to an election. The ruling opened the floodgates, and an unprecedented tidal wave of money is flowing into the November midterms. 

At a conference on the ruling in July, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Florida, described the proceedings in the case. “They wanted to hear the possibility that that’s the way the constitution would read to them,” he said. “So they picked an issue out of the air that nobody had conceived of [as a First Amendment case] because 100 years of settled law meant that corporations cannot buy elections in America, and they not only allowed corporations to buy those elections, but they made it a constitutional right.” He called the decision “a tragedy for us all,” as  “corporations now have rights that human beings can never have.” Grayson, unsurprisingly, is among the Chamber’s top targets

The ruling opened up the spigots for corporations and labor unions alike. Deep-pocketed interests on both sides of the aisle are going all-in this November, which will likely see  the previous record for spending in a non-presidential election year obliterated. McClatchy Newspapers reported this week that “while big money in politics is hardly new, there never have been sums of this magnitude in midterm elections.”  

Those dollars are not flowing equally to the two major parties, however. According to a study by the Center for Public Integrity, between August 1 and September 20, GOP-aligned business groups had outspent their Democratically aligned counterparts by a 5 to 1 ratio. The Chamber itself has aired 8,000 ads for Republican Senate candidates alone through September 15.  

The new environment has spawned the “super-PAC,” huge honey-pots of corporate cash set aside to defeat progressive and centrist candidates. In addition to the $75 million pledged by the Chamber, McClatchy reports that Karl Rove’s new group, American Crossroads, is expected to spend $52 million, oil billionaire David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity has pledged $45 million and the Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity, organized by veteran conservative activist Scott Reed, hopes to pony up another $25 million dollars. 

If those names all sound vaguely benign, they should. Making the situation all the more dangerous is the fact that these PACs aren’t required to disclose their donors. "Now, if you're a company that wants to write a $10 million check to help or hurt a candidate, you can go to town," Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, told McClatchy. And you can do so without risking any backlash from your more progressive customers.  

But despite the fact that, as Politico reported, “the Chamber is fighting to continue to keep contributions secret,” it was revealed in August that Fox News’ parent company, the News Corporation, had donated $1 million to the Chamber, a sum that followed an earlier million directed to the Republican Governor’s association. 

In July, Congressional Democrats tried to mitigate the damage done by the Citizens United ruling. In the House, they passed the DISCLOSE ACT, which would have “required organizations involved in political campaigning to disclose the identity of the large donors, and to reveal their identities in any political ads they fund. It would also bar foreign corporations, government contractors and TARP recipients from making political expenditures.” But a unified Republican caucus in the Senate killed the legislation. 

What makes this all the more troubling is that this process could totally overwhelm our elections process. Robert Weisman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said he expects special interest money to start out relatively slowly and grow cycle after cycle. "$5.2 billion [was] spent in the 2007-2008 election cycle by all federal candidates, including candidate Obama,” he said. “Exxon in that same period made $85 billion in profit; Pfizer made $27 billion selling just Lipitor alone. Last year, Goldman Sachs spent $16.5 billion on executive compensation. So if they choose to, corporations can completely overwhelm the political process, and they’re going to choose to do it more and more.”


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