How do corporations and unions influence elections?
March 8, 2011 8:27 AM   Subscribe

How do corporations and unions influence lawmakers?

I know that corporations and unions can influence lawmakers in a variety of ways. Corporate PACs, for instance, can donate up to $2,500 per election to candidate committees, and the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United allows corporations and unions to make unlimited independent political expenditures.

But there's a range of more subtle channels of influence. Some members of Congress, for instance, establish local charities in their own names, allowing them to take corporate cash in the form of charitable donations. Many companies will take advantage of murky disclosure requirements to enhance their campaign contributions with lobbying activity.

Has anybody cataloged these different types of influence? How can we get an accurate and complete view of a corporation or union's influence over an elected official?
posted by morninj to Law & Government (8 answers total)
Congressmen are way cheaper than you might imagine. Then too there are glittering prizes of positions after congress gets dull, so long as you play ball. And there are shameless up front but back door bribes - I have to imagine that Hillary's book deal with S&S (a division of Viacom) was perhaps enhanced by her ongoing and future influence in Washington.

As to the second question, the trick is determining whether they would have gotten the quid without the quo. That is to say, would a lawmaker vote one way without the bribe regardless. Most scandalous to my mind is that outsiders are allowed to craft the wording of new law all by themselves. Especially in the tax code, where all sorts of strange little orphan nuggets are hiding in all that verbiage. I've often wondered what it would take to get one for oneself.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:43 AM on March 8, 2011

It's hardly subtle but you missed mentioning it, maybe because it's done out of the public eye, but the greatest influence is the promise of the revolving door:

1. Take corporate contributions to run for office
2. Serve your corporate masters
3. ...
4. PROFIT after your political retirement by being hired to a richly compensated no-show job or given a paid seat on the Board of Directors

Political power isn't a corrupt politician's goal, it's just the means to their massively rich old age.
posted by nicwolff at 9:49 AM on March 8, 2011

You seem to be focusing on direct payments. Don't forget other forms of influence, such as threatening to move jobs, projects and business interests into and out of a congressional district.

"You'll look good when we open the new widget-making plant in your district, won't you?"
"You'll be at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and everything."
"That'll be a nice photo for your re-election campaign."
"So, about this health care legislation..."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:26 AM on March 8, 2011

Best answer: Industrial groups can influence lawmakers not only through elections, but through drafting or helping to draft legal documents like statutes and treaties which accomplish the industrial agenda. All that takes is convincing decision makers that the new law accomplishes some objective the decision maker desires, even though there may be hidden complexities that the lawmaker might not intend or foresee.
posted by Hylas at 10:49 AM on March 8, 2011

If we expand the perspective from just elected officials, getting regulatory agencies to do what you want them to do is literally a business model. There are entire companies that basically do regulatory grunt work for industry. This involves a lot of rulemaking, which has a "notice and comment" phase. The agency posts a notice that they're thinking about a rule, the public submits comments, and the agency has to respond to all the serious ones. Getting those comments written is thus not only an important part of getting the rule to look as much like the way you want it as you can, but it can also serve to massively slow down the process if a bunch of people/companies submit a bunch of serious ones.
posted by valkyryn at 11:03 AM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are a TON of websites out there that folks consider "conspiracy theory-ish" that actually do some pretty good interviews and articles about exactly this sort of thing.

The problem is, most of the time, you yourself have to be discerning about the info so you can separate the wheat from the chaf. Sometimes crazy people have bones to pick, and sometimes articles are propaganda swinging in the opposite direction. I tend to avoid a lot of "independent" US media sources for this reason - too much noise!

(I'm looking at you Common Dreams, BuzzFlash, AlterNet, HuffPo, etc. etc.)

- Nthing that the backdoor influence is harder to catalogue.

- You'll never get real info on this from regular news sources either way, so avoid

Your best bet is to educate yourself on the general tactics used to influence policy (by familiarizing yourself with individual cases) because knowing generally how it all works makes this stuff EASY to spot.

- google "Northern Mariana Islands scandal lobbying" for a bunch of good articles concerning the US government.

- recommended here before, this podcast interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir titled "Financial War Against Iceland" is THE BEST introduction to the current worldwide economic meltdown I've encountered so far. This is from over a year ago, but still exceptionally relevant. This along with the book below will make you an expert on the underhanded patterns and tactics used globally to control economies.

- I like the book, "Confessions of an Economic Hitman." Short read, a great primer on the subject.

- I also like the book "Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich - and Cheat Everybody Else" as introduction. This is about the US tax code. Also a great short read.

- I like the Corbett Report news podcasts. Available on iTunes. James Corbet is a little dry, but exceptionally well researched. (for the love of god - fast forward through the lengthy 10 min+ intros to the podcasts!!) Tons of topics, the podcast archive is a goldmine and the information contained there is never old or irrelevant.

- Yesterday I was grooving on this new interview with author Peter Levenda on Red Ice. It looks like conspracy theory bs from the webpage, but right off the bat the interview features an exceptionally cogent discussion on what happened to the Nazis after WWII, how many escaped prosecution and instead were able to infiltrate and influence governments around the world - including many governments in South America and the US. (Hint: their scientific prowess was considered valuable, it was an unfortunate side-effect that their idealogy came along for the ride as they were welcomed and protected.)

OOPS. Almost forgot!

- "Charlie Wilson's War" was f'king AMAZING. It's a big read, but a page turner if you at all interested in how influence peddling works specific to our US government. This one speaks directly to your question. I should have lead with this! Do not not not watch the movie - it's not even in the same ballpark.

Disclaimer: Way back in the stone ages, I worked for the UN and then in television news. I've also served in local government. By default, I was exposed to how things often really work. We take it for granted now how the housing bubble in the US was ill-advised and engineered (at least I think most people get it.) It's important to remember that some of the people involved in events like this have nefarious intentions, but most of the bureaucracy and lack of journalistic oversight which makes this shit possible is driven by folks just trying to make a living in their respective fields and get ahead. There is a sort of willful ignorance behind most of it. That's why I like the Iceland story so much and keep pushing that interview cited above here on the green. What's happening in Iceland directly demonstrates that populations don't have to fall victim and folks on the inside and outside the corridors of power can make a positive difference.

Enjoy your research!
posted by jbenben at 12:04 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

To answer your question directly:

No. I have yet to come across any one source that details all the ways influence is peddled.


I included many examples in my answer because it seems to be too broad a topic at this time. Similarly, anything that is successful on the global stage has been successful on a local level, and vice versa. The book Perfectly Legal does a pretty good job of explaining how private influence works to create new loop holes when known avenues close. Charlie Wilson's War does a good job of detailing back-room congressional shenanigans, even though it details events from the 70's and 80's.

If you can find good articles about the US Justice Dept and how it was hijacked during the Bush administration, you'll find that informative (instances concerning the San Diego office come to mind, but I can't exactly remember why right now.)

Similarly, any good info on how the FDA currently operates. That is an excellent tutorial on private influence on government, including details on many of the lobbying-type entities you mentioned in your ask.
posted by jbenben at 12:19 PM on March 8, 2011

Best answer: Maybe I'm skimming or maybe this doesn't really answer the question but I don't see any mention of lobbying. I'm no expert but I think lobbying comes in a lot of forms. One of the more benign ones is educational. Lawmakers are busy. They don't have time to become experts on every single thing that comes across their plates so they have to rely on relationships with people in industry to explain things. Understandably, said people in industry have their interests that may or may not mesh with those of the lawmaker or the lawmaker's constituents. That's definitely one way in which corporations and unions influence lawmakers.

Is there a catalog? Not that I'm aware of. How can we get an accurate and complete view? Elected officials frequently have to file financial statements in addition to campaign finance reports. I think that's how they come out with lists like who the wealthiest/poorest members of Congress are. Knowing who politicians spend time with is another window - public schedules, for example. Hope that helps.
posted by kat518 at 6:57 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

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