Massive amounts of money will be spent to influence upcoming federal elections, and if recent history is any guide, at least half of it will be totally secret. We won’t know who donated the money, nor for what exact purpose. In 2010, political committees and organizations spent $298 million—four times what was spent in the 2006 midterms—and about 50 percent was undisclosed.
A report released Monday says this raging river of secret cash has the potential to create massive scandal and distort the democratic process, and it calls for complete transparency of political donations and public financing options for federal campaigns. That’s not a particularly remarkable conclusion, but what’s notable is who issued the report.
“Hidden Money: The Need for Transparency in Political Finance” was signed by thirty-two business leaders and university professors—including representatives from Citigroup, Prudential Financial and others. Executives from the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Merck helped promote the findings at a public event this week.
The report enumerates some of the problems that post–Citizens United political money creates for large corporations:
The current state of campaign fundraising entails the inherent risk that companies, labor unions, and other organizations will be drawn into a political spending arms race, with no clear end in sight. Corporate resources that might be better spent investing in an enterprise or otherwise building shareholder value would then be diverted to political activities. As CED has noted before, a vibrant and strong economy results from business competition in the economic marketplace, not in the political arena. Unrestrained corporate political spending encourages the pursuit of particular policy or regulatory benefits that may not serve the public’s broad interests, or lead to political donations that are given with the intent of avoiding adverse consequences of legislative action. Donor influence also serves to undermine market forces by facilitating policies or regulatory requirements that diminish competition or unduly advantage particular firms or industries. Furthermore, the influence of money can sustain inefficient or outmoded businesses, thereby subverting and frustrating the creative innovation that encourages new investment, spurs business development, and keeps jobs and investment at home. [Emphases added.]
Stronger shareholder oversight of corporate political donations is needed, says the report, along with much tougher transparency enforcement by the Federal Elections Commission. “Transparency is an essential principle of free and competitive markets; it is equally important in a system of free and competitive elections. The use of hidden money in elections undermines First Amendment guarantees and is contrary to the basic values of our democracy,” it reads.
It’s truly remarkable that Citigroup and Pfizer—both heavy hitters in the political money game—have lent their names to such an effort and explained how unrestrained, secret spending is actually dangerous for their business and the marketplace.
A cynic might say that it’s exactly because Citigroup and Pfizer have for so long spent money in the open to influence politics, that they resent the new secrecy. You could read between the lines and reach that conclusion when the report says “every organization should be subject to the same rules and obligations to make their campaign finances transparent.”
But the report not only calls for transparency but much less corporate influence overall—not only to stop a political spending "arms race," but to improve democracy. The authors advocate public financing of federal elections, in the form of multiple dollar matches for small individual contributions. The report says this will “free [candidates] of the need to be beholden to large donors and special interests.”
Unfortunately, this rather dramatic statement from big businesses has gone virtually unnoticed in the mainstream press. But it’s a crucial point that should be a part of any campaign finance discussion—by their own admission, corporations can also be hurt by unrestrained, secret spending.