How are Big Businesses Buying U.S. Elections?

Steve Pope/Getty Images

Steve Pope/Getty Images

Gearing up for the 2016 presidential election means talking about more than just candidates. It also means talking about money — specifically where all the money for campaigns will come from. While potential candidate Hillary Clinton continues to be critiqued for allowing donations to Clinton Foundation to come from countries that don’t respect women’s rights, we’re about to see the fruits of political spending in the 2016 elections and won’t even know where it’s coming from.

Elections are getting more and more expensive. According to the New York Times, a record $6.3 billion was spent on presidential and congressional elections in 2012, and it’s estimated that spending will be more like $7.5 to $8 billion for 2016. That’s an outrageous amount of money, and what’s worse: We don’t know where a lot of it is coming from because the Securities and Exchange Commission still does not have a law requiring corporations to disclose their political spending. And most politicians are just fine with this.

The American public, on the other hand, is not. Last fall, activists gathered to protest the SEC’s failure to move forward with a rule that would require the disclosure of such spending. After the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision loosened campaign finance rules and brought forth millions of dollars of undisclosed political spending by businesses and individuals, many began petitioning the SEC, arguing that the commission is meant to protecting investors, not politicians. 

At a recent congressional hearing, SEC Chair Mary Jo White responded to a legislator who asked why the SEC had not made disclosing this kind of political spending a law with her usual rhetoric that it’s not the most important issue to the commission, according to the New York Times. According to Reuters, in the past, she has said she opposes writing rules to exert “societal pressures on companies.”

But the amount of money — and how much money can affect elections — is serious. After the Citizens United ruling, this undisclosed campaign spending exploded. An example: Charles and David Koch, founders of Koch Industries, run a network of roughly 300 political spenders made up mostly of nonprofit groups that are not required to disclose their spending. In 2012, their $400 million contribution to the elections didn’t successfully get a Republican into the presidential office (their spending supports primarily conservative candidates). But their group seems to be doubling down and planning to spend nearly $900 million for 2016, according to the New York Times.

This kind of spending puts the Koch’s network on par with the Democratic and Republican Parties. (The Republican National Committee and the party’s two congressional campaign committees spent a total of $657 million for the last presidential election, according to NYT.) This amount of undisclosed from corporations is unprecedented and overpowering.

“It’s no wonder the candidates show up when the Koch brothers call,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, to the New York Times. “That’s exponentially more money than any party organization will spend. In many ways, they have superseded the party.”

These networks and super PACs not only use their money to support certain candidates winning, but also continue to have the ears of these candidates. So is big business just winning elections? Or is it running the whole show?

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