Leaked Documents Show How The RGA Does Business

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September 25, 2014 6:00 a.m.

I’m shocked, shocked to find out about the extensive corporate outreach by the Republican Governor’s Association.

New documents accidentally posted online by the RGA name names, laying out which big corporations have donated to the RGA’s dark-money group.

The documents, many of which the Republican officials have since removed from their website, showed that an A-to-Z of America’s most prominent companies, from Aetna to Walmart, had poured millions of dollars into the campaigns of Republican governors since 2008. One document listed 17 corporate ‘members’ of the governors association’s secretive 501(c)(4), the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, which is allowed to shield its supporters from the public.

For their contributions, executives got some lovely prizes: receptions, parties, and access to Republican luminaries like Rick Perry, Haley Barbour, and Bobby Jindal — as well as recently-convicted former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The luxurious perks were not why the donations came in, though. The executives who showed up expected bigger rewards — favorable policies on health care, fossil fuel extraction, and other issues where they have a rooting interest.

The most elite group, known as the Statesmen, whose members donated $250,000, included Aetna; Coca-Cola; Exxon Mobil; Koch Companies Public Sector, the lobbying arm of the highly political Koch Industries; Microsoft; Pfizer; UnitedHealth Group; and Walmart. The $100,000 Cabinet level included Aflac, BlueCross BlueShield, Comcast, Hewlett-Packard, Novartis, Shell Oil, Verizon Communications and Walgreens.

The details are new, but the story is depressingly unsurprising. Big donors drive the political conversation, because appealing to them dominates the lives of political candidates and operatives. On both sides of the aisle, much of a political candidate’s day is spent on the phone with the kind of people for whom the estate tax is a much bigger deal than Medicaid.

Indeed, some big corporate donors take this idea to feudal levels, trying to extract their own employees’ money toward the company’s favorite political ends. Walmart incentivizes PAC contributions from employees by promising to make charitable donations in exchange. Less subtly, coal executive Bob Murray openly insists on his employees donating to his preferred candidates, allegedly firing one employee this year for failing to contribute.

The conservative (or “libertarian populist”) take on corporate political giving, of course, is that it roves government is too big, and these poor corporations are forced against their will to pony up in order to keep the heavy hand of the regulator off of themselves. If politicians didn’t try to pass laws to limit pollution, protect consumers and ensure fair workplace conditions, the argument goes, corporations wouldn’t have to fund other politicians who would promise to roll back those laws. It’s a novel take on the protection racket: nice electoral system you have here, shame if anything happened to it.

The power of money in electoral politics is one of the reasons why economic inequality matters. When the resources to donate to political campaigns falls into fewer hands, and when the ability to donate is unlimited, politicians on either side will be forced to chase that small class of big donors. The people and companies who can afford to fund campaigns become the real constituents.

Of course, it would help if the companies and politicians who collude financially could be held accountable. This requires the public being able to know about it. For a long time, the standard libertarian/conservative line on campaign finance was that the ability to donate should be unlimited, and full disclosure would allow voters and consumers alike to decide how they feel about the companies their politicians support, and vice versa.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in the Citizens United case relies upon that premise:

The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

But it’s one thing to claim disclosure is the key to campaign finance, and another thing to actually make it happen. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who used to make the disclosure argument for unlimited campaign contributions, led a Republican filibuster of a disclosure bill in 2012. He now contends that campaign finance disclosure is terrible, because it opens companies to “harassment and intimidation” tantamount to limiting the freedom of speech.

On the other side of the equation, we are at the whim of the individual company whether we know where their political giving goes or not. Some companies are transparent about it, some much less so.

The reason that corporations and politicians like McConnell would rather do all of this in secret is that what they’re doing is often unpopular, and would reflect poorly on them. The power of voters is important — but the power of consumers in the market comes into play here.

On the bright side, a campaign by a broad array of civil rights, labor, and economic-justice activists have made some big steps towards wedging corporations away from politics. Over the past few days, three major tech companies have disassociated themselves from ALEC, the conservative organization dedicated to letting corporations and state legislators collude on business-friendly laws. Google left ALEC over the issue of climate change, and Facebook and Yelp have joined Google. They’re among the more than 80 companies that have distanced themselves from ALEC in recent years, including Coca-Cola and Kraft. The organization’s stances on climate, voting rights, gun laws, and other issues are a real liability for companies who want to protect their brand and their public image.

Companies that choose to get involved in politics know the potential consequences of siding against public sentiment. And politicians understand that it’s unseemly to lavish attention on corporate donors and offer them favorable legislation. That’s why they’d rather keep their collusion secret. Unfortunately, with disclosure legislation a non-starter among Congressional Republicans, we’re left to rely on “a simple coding mistake” to tell us what’s happening in organizations like the RGA — who they’re listening to, and what they’re offering.

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