‘Fixed Fortunes’: Corporate Donors Spent $5.8B on Political Influence, Received $4.4T in Financial Benefits

November 17th, 2014  |  Source: Sunlight Foundation

The Sunlight Foundation is releasing “Fixed Fortunes,” a groundbreaking analysis and dataset of the money the biggest corporate political donors put into campaigns and lobbying and what they get in return. 

Sunlight’s research found that, between 2007 and 2012, 200 of the most politically active for-profit companies in the United States disclosed spending a total of $5.8 billion influencing Washington through campaign contributions and lobbying, and have benefitted from $4.4 trillion in contracts, grants, loans and subsidies. The number exceeds the $4.3 trillion that 50 million Americans received over the same time period from Social Security. 

“These are big political players, but they're also big beneficiaries of government spending, whether it's contracts, loan programs or bailout money,” said Sunlight Foundation Editorial Director Bill Allison, who authored the report. “It really raises the question of whether government deals with these companies at arm's length, or does their access and influence win them special treatment?”

The Fixed Fortunes 200 represent multiple industries—finance (Goldman Sachs), telecommunications (AT&T), manufacturing (Honeywell International), technology (Microsoft) and aerospace (Lockheed Martin). There are also construction, transportation, retail and tourism firms among them. 

“We hope this research will catalyze a broader conversation in our country about the increasingly negative role of money in both politics and actual governance,” said Sunlight Foundation President Chris Gates. “These corporations are using their deep pockets and purchased influence to shift our federal government's focus away from the actual priorities of the American public.”  

Sunlight analyzed 14 million records with data on campaign contributions, lobbying expenditures and federal budget allocations over the three years preceding the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, and the three years following. Together these companies were responsible for 26 percent of the disclosed spending on lobbying over that six-year period. 

“The companies we looked at include some of the biggest names in private enterprise,” Allison said. “What's astounding is the extent to which public money—taxpayer money—figures in their business plans.”

Loopholes in disclosure laws—which allow lobbyists to go unregistered and avoid requiring specific information about lobbying meetings and contacts—mean that these numbers almost certainly underestimate exactly how much companies spend on influencing government.

In its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court held that corporate spending in elections would not “give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” The decision paved the way for corporate political donors to wield their influence through their checkbooks. 

“This research shows that even before the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United, major corporations were able to put huge amounts of money into politics—and reap huge rewards from the political system,” Allison said. 

Sunlight created “Fixed Fortunes” to make public more information about how the political influence of the top for-profit companies affects how the federal government prioritizes spending. To be included, organizations had to have an active political action committee and registered lobbyists showing some income in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 election cycles. 

In the course of conducting its research, Sunlight found that the government’s main vehicle for disclosing federal spending, USASpending.gov, still lacks the ability to provide the public with a comprehensive view of all spending, particularly since not all governmental agencies must report their spending data. Expanding and improving reporting requirements would better enable the public to hold government accountable. 

To explore the Fixed Fortunes report and data, go to: http://influenceexplorer.com/fixed-fortunes. And for its complete methodology, go to: http://influenceexplorer.com/fixed-fortunes/methodology.

Sunlight will host a webinar Nov. 24 at 1 p.m. EST to walk through our findings, methodology and impact of the information. Journalists interested in attending should RSVP here: http://training.sunlightfoundation.com/events/.

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable to all.

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