by Max Brantley
Citizens United was a bad thing. But the flow of corporate money in Super PACs, bad as it could be, at least has a shred of accountability in financial disclosure.
Not so the laundering of corporate money through nonprofit groups that work to elect friendly politicians, defeat unfriendly ones and otherwise push a corporate agenda in secrecy. This money passes through groups that enjoy nonprofit status and thus a taxpayer subsidy of their activities. (See, for illustration of this secret agenda setting, the billionaire Koch Bros. and such affiliates of the Arkansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which pushes Arkansas Republican candidates while opposing taxes and environmental regulation, even to the local level in its fight against protection of the Lake Maumelle water supply.)
The New York Times examines this process today.
The review found that corporate donations — many of them previously unreported — went to groups large and small, dedicated to shaping public policy on the state and national levels. From a redistricting fight in Minnesota to the sprawling battleground of the 2012 presidential and Congressional elections, corporations are opening their wallets and altering the political world.
Some of the biggest recipients of corporate money are organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, the federal designation for “social welfare” groups dedicated to advancing broad community interests. Because they are not technically political organizations, they do not have to register with or disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission, potentially shielding corporate contributors from shareholders or others unhappy with their political positions.
“Companies want to be able to quietly push for their political agendas without being held accountable for it by their customers,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has filed complaints against issue groups. “I think the 501(c)(4)’s are likely to outweigh super PAC spending, because so many donors want to remain anonymous.”
Some irony here. The corporate Republican U.S. Supreme Court majority recently legislated that unions could not take non-union member dues for spending on political issues with which the non-members disagreed. Do you think for a minute the Roberts-Alito-Scalia-Thomas-Kennedy court would say corporations could not spend political money in ways with which minority stockholders disagreed?
The Times story notes, among others, $1 million donated by American Electric Power to a group pushing for limited government. This is the country's biggest coal burner, owner of the greenhouse gas-spewing new power plant in Hempstead County. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a major player (don't forget it lists the leaders of Arkansas's largest local chambers, including Jay Chesshir of Little Rock, in its higher echelon.)
The 501c4s — the organizations at the root of the Times story — are active in Arkansas in many ways, at every level. The idea is to leave a voter not knowing what hit them.