Unchecked corporate cash in the form of political donations and lobbying expenditures has the power to exert undue influence over public policy and regulatory systems and threaten our democracy. Yet in spite of this power, most S&P 500 companies lack a formal system of lobbying oversight and don’t fully disclose how monies are being spent, particularly through third-party organizations like trade associations. Investors are concerned that lobbying expenditures may inadvertently be diverted to groups advancing agendas contrary to the stated missions of companies, setting up potential conflicts of interest and exposing companies to reputational risk.
Sigh. Mayer and ICCR are working both sides of their levitating, shaking bed of anti-First Amendment, anti-Citizens United paranoia with Mayer seeking political intervention on one side and ICCR haranguing corporate shareholders with proxy resolutions on the other. In the meantime, the Republic remains a bastion of the freedoms that conjure 24-hour night terrors for the author and the so-called “religiously motivated” shareholder activists.
The “dark money” bogeymen searched for under those quivering bedsprings share the last name Koch, and we just can’t have libertarian billionaires expressing free speech in the U.S. political system, according to Mayer, ICCR and a raft of other opponents that are hypocritically funded by progressive billionaires bearing names like George Soros, Bill Gates, Tom Steyer, Warren Buffett and Eric Schmidt – all noted by George Melloan in his review of Mayer’s book in the Wall Street Journal:
Ms. Mayer is highly selective about which super-wealthy dabblers in politics she wants to expel. Warren Buffett, whose $62 billion fortune ranks second only to that of Bill Gates ($76 billion), is not one of her targets. Rather she quotes him in support of her thesis, to the effect that the rich are winning the class war. Tom Steyer, the West Coast hedge-fund billionaire environmentalist, gets a bye as well. So does former Google CEO Eric Schmidt ($11 billion), a big campaign contributor to Barack Obama, and Steven Spielberg, who has generously shared from his $3 billion nest egg to aid the goals of Bill and Hillary Clinton. A host of think tanks and political websites depend on liberal deep pockets, but their donors do not figure in “Dark Money.” Politically active, left-of-center oligarchs are apparently wonderful people, not dangerous ones.
Ms. Mayer mainly dislikes foes of big government. Her list of the rich and dangerous begins with figures whose heyday has passed, such as Richard Mellon Scaife and John M. Olin. For decades, their philanthropies supported conservative journals, scholars and think tanks, much as the Bradley Foundation does today, another organization that earns her contempt. But most of “Dark Money” is aimed at just two people, Charles and David Koch. The brothers, tied for fifth on the Forbes list with $41 billion apiece, are most notably backers of the Cato Institute, a Washington free-market think tank. They also host public-policy seminars, fund political groups and back candidates either directly or by way of the Koch Industries political action committee. Ms. Mayer argues that they and their “ultra-wealthy allies on the right” have become the “single most effective special interest group in the country.” The Kochs might answer, “We should be so lucky.”
In other words, like the spooky villains in a Scooby Doo cartoon, the Kochs haven’t been all that terribly successful – you know, because they could’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids! Those kids, borrowing a quote from Walt Kelly’s Pogo, is us. As in: We the People. The record for tilting the political world in the favor of the wealthy, you see, hasn’t been terribly successful, as noted by Melloan:
Authors who argue that rich people can buy elections don’t get much support from history. The “oligarchs” behind Mitt Romney are still smarting from his defeat. In the 1930s, business titans could not buy victory for the anti-New Deal candidates who ran against Roosevelt. More than a century ago, during the Gilded Age, Congress managed to pass the Sherman Antitrust Act, to the sorrow of John D. Rockefeller and other one-percenters.
It can be argued that the cynicism behind the politics-for-sale claim, even when displayed by a talented writer like Ms. Mayer, reflects a distrust of the American democratic system—as if “the people” are commodities to be purchased and not autonomous beings who can think for themselves. The cynicism also denigrates the work of activists and scholars who join up with Cato, the Manhattan Institute, Heritage, Brookings, Hoover, the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Foundation, Common Cause—or whatever organization one might choose—because they believe in what those bodies stand for, not because they are the mindless slaves of some rich donor.
Even on the left, despite his comparatively paltry campaign war chest, Sen. Bernie Sanders is standing up admirably against the veritable Fort Knox accumulated from corporate and billionaire supporters of Hillary Clinton. But never mind such empirical evidence; it’s the heads of the brothers Koch that Mayer and the revolutionary nuns, priests and other religious over at ICCR desire on pikes despite agreeing with most every social issue the oil barons support, including immigration, legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. Further, they oppose the drug war and believe in a light-touch foreign policy.
But, to the left, the Kochs must be marginalized because their money derives from fossil fuels and they rally against the climate-change agenda and an overbearing regulatory regime. Tom Steyer, it should be noted, also made billions from the fossil-fuel industry, but he’s since banked that fortune privately while publicly sporting the latest designer hair shirt. As noted by National Review’s Jonah Goldberg last week:
Democrats don’t like Citizens United because they think it might blunt their advantages. According to OpenSecrets.org, of the top five organizations — i.e., unions and corporate PACs — that give to federal candidates, all (mostly public unions) give 97 percent to 100 percent of their donations to liberals and Democrats. Of the top ten, eight give almost exclusively to the Left. Of the top 25, 18 donate disproportionately to the Left.
By the way, Koch Industries is No. 49 on the list, and the National Rifle Association is No. 74.
But … advocating for limited government and questioning whether humans are causing catastrophic climate change is beyond the pale according to the cartoonish mythology constructed by Mayer, ICCR and their cronies on the Left. Yes, they’re fine with billionaire moolah and labor union dues contributed to campaigns for progressive causes and office holders, but hypocritical and hyperbolic when it comes to libertarians and conservatives who exercise the same freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment and Citizens United. When it comes to the Kochs, however, their “tainted” billions are “dark money,” legal tender minted from a currency housed somewhere in The Twilight Zone.