American Culture

For 20 years, big-time political money still flowing from the same sources

We do not know the amount of invisible money injected into politics that resulted from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January that permitted anonymous corporate political spending.

But we can count the visible money, campaign contributions that the law requires be reported. No matter what the hot-button issue is on the public’s (er, media’s) agenda at any given time, the big money given to congressional candidates comes from the same sources.

More than three years ago, I analyzed data from the Center for Responsive Politics, looking at donations since 1990. Here were the top givers:

Since 1990, lawyers and law firms have made nearly $781 million in campaign contributions, ranking them No. 1. (Adding in the lobbyists makes that nearly $900 million.)

At No. 2 are the retired folks who want to protect what they spent a lifetime accumulating. The AARP faction has made nearly $662 million in campaign contributions since 1990.

At No. 3 is the securities and investments industry (which the AARP set leans on to protect its wealth), which has made $463 million in campaign contributions since 1990.

At No. 4: Real estate at $456 million.

At No. 5: Health professionals at nearly $360 million.

Nothing’s changed. The same groups are still pushing more money into congressional campaigns than another other special interests. But the game is different now: This is only the money we can see. Citizens United permits anonymity: Now we worry about political money we cannot see or count.

According to a CRP summary of political giving in the 2010 election cycle, here are the big givers of visible money:

Lawyers and law firms gave $59,298,447. Biggest recipient: Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
• The lobby for retired folks gave $37,402,970. Biggest recipient: Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Health professionals gave $35,152,278. Biggest recipient: Sen. Mark Kirk, D-Ill.
• The securities and investment industry gave $30,191,664. Biggest recipient: Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
• The real estate industry gave $29,305,144. Biggest recipient: Sen. Schumer (who was also the biggest recipient for the No. 6 biggest giver, the insurance industry at $22,888,602.)

The top five industries pushed nearly $200 million at current incumbents in Congress. Add in the next 45 top special-interest donors, and the total given to current incumbents hits more than $600 million.

But for two decades, the top five have remained the same, merely switching positions from cycle to cycle: lawyers/law firms, retired people, the securities and investments industry, real estate, and health professionals.

That $600 million is a lot of money. But again, it’s visible money: We know who gave it and we know who got it. The law requires disclosure of donations direct to candidates.

But do we know from whom the U.S. Chamber of Commerce raised the $75 million it announced in July it would spend on influencing politics? That’s in addition to the $190 million it has spent on politics since Barack Obama became president.

The chamber does not identify its donors. The chamber must file tax returns and list donations of more than $5,000, including 21 in 2008 that each exceed $1 million, one of them for $15 million. But the chamber does not provide the donors’ names, says The New York Times.

From The Times’ Eric Lipton, Mike McIntire, and Don Van Atta Jr.:

And these contributions, some of which can be pieced together through tax filings of corporate foundations and other public records, also show how the chamber has increasingly relied on a relatively small collection of big corporate donors to finance much of its legislative and political agenda. The chamber makes no apologies for its policy of not identifying its donors. It has vigorously opposed legislation in Congress that would require groups like it to identify their biggest contributors when they spend money on campaign ads.

Now remember that self-financing candidates are flooding into politics, including billionaires like Meg Whitman and Mike Bloomberg, among others. Again, it’s money we see only when they spend it — not necessarily when they receive it. Or, more likely, money spent by anonymous others on “issue” ads that obliquely favor a candidate.

Yes, I know. You already know this. But we need to be reminded again and again. The abuses permitted by anonymous political money must remain high on the public’s agenda. So we need to keep pushing it there.

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