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Corporate Campaign Spending: The Bucks Stop Where?

When it comes political advertising, the nation's highest court rules, the sky's the limit

“It’s unlikely that many companies will buy their own political advertising directly,” says Bruce Freed, president of the Washington-based Center for Political Accountability, a nonprofit organization that advocates transparency in corporate political spending. Companies have already been “laundering an indeterminate amount of money through trade associations and tax-exempt organizations,” Freed says. “There’s no disclosure or accountability.” Under the court’s new ruling, corporate payments for advertising through third parties will increase, he says.

Freed’s organization encourages corporations to disclose the details of their political spending, along with the policies and procedures governing the spending and whatever board oversight might exist. About 70 companies, from Adobe Systems to Xerox, have done so to date.

Historical footnote

President Obama has vowed to fight the court’s ruling, branding it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” In his weekly radio address to the nation two days after the court’s decision, President Obama invoked a legendary reformer.

“A hundred years ago,” he said, “one of the great Republican presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, fought to limit special-interest spending and influence over American political campaigns and warned of the impact of unbridled corporate spending.” Roosevelt championed the 1907 Tillman Act, under which corporations were — and remain, even after the court’s latest decision — barred from making direct political contributions to federal candidates.

Of the $2.2 million Roosevelt raised for his 1904 presidential campaign, nearly three-fourths had come from corporate treasuries, much of it in chunks of $50,000, $100,000 and $150,000. While publicly denouncing what he called a “wicked falsehood” — namely, that his campaign had extorted contributions from the titans of corporate America — Roosevelt privately agonized over the situation in which he found himself.

“Sooner or later, unless there is a readjustment,” he told a reporter, “there will come a riotous, wicked, murderous day of atonement.” After the election, to the consternation of his corporate underwriters, Roosevelt reverted to attacking big business and pushed for reform.

Steel baron Henry Clay Frick, a $50,000 donor, would grow visibly angry whenever he talked about how Roosevelt had spurned the people who’d largely financed his campaign. “We bought the son of a bitch,” Frick said, “and then he did not stay bought.”

Bill Hogan lives in Falls Church, Va.

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