Two events in Washington this week provided evidence that major corporate interests are running scared as they fight to hide their attempts to buy political power.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), two of the country’s most influential lobbying groups, sponsored forums to hash out their strategies for heading off citizen and shareholder movements to force better disclosure of corporate political and lobbying expenditures.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Chamber, which spent $91.9 million on lobbying and $35.5 million on “independent” political activity in 2014, hosted a conference on shareholder resolutions that seek to force corporations to disclose their spending on politics and lobbying. Among the attendees were U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and representatives of the Center for Competitive Politics, funded by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
“Money is a necessary element in politics,” Cornyn reportedly told a room full of potential corporate donors. And Paul Atkins, CEO of Patomak Global Partners and a former Securities and Exchange Commissioner under President George W. Bush, reminded listeners that “disclosure…is not always good for the bottom line” of corporations.
Hours after the Chamber event near the White House, Atkins turned up with a similar message at the Hyatt Regency hotel on Capitol Hill for ALEC’s States and Nation Policy Summit. The annual ALEC conference provides out-of-public-sight backrooms for corporate lobbyists to court state legislators from across the country and fashion “model” legislation to boost corporate balance sheets. According to Bloomberg News, Koch Industries, Pfizer, Peabody Energy, Anheuser-Busch, and State Farm Insurance were among the corporations represented at the conference.
At an ALEC panel titled “Playing the Shame Game: A Campaign That Threatens Corporate Free Speech,” Atkins argued that shareholders and consumers asking corporations to disclose their funding to ALEC are trying to “silence dissenting speech.” In fact, those shareholders and consumers simply want information about the companies they own (in the case of shareholders) or may be doing business with (in the case of consumers). Surely someone considering buying a phone or phone service from AT&T should be able to find out if part of their purchase is going to support politicians or political organizations that seek to lower their wages, block their access to affordable healthcare, or repeal laws protecting them from pollution.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Center for Competitive Politics representatives at the ALEC confab handed out documents entitled "Five Misconceptions About 'Dark Money'" and a report contending that "disclosure requirements harm First Amendment rights.”
The alarmist tone at both events reflects the heat that groups like the U.S. Chamber and ALEC are feeling from disclosure advocates. Dozens of ALEC’s corporate members, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Occidental Petroleum, have left the organization in recent months thanks to shareholder actions or public pressure. While the Supreme Court, in Citizens United, declared that corporations can spend whatever they like on politics, the justices have so far stood strong in support of disclosure requirements as critical protection against corruption. They seem to understand that disclosure isn’t a threat to free speech, it’s a pillar of true democracy.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Money in Politics