Why the secrecy?
Businesses have an incentive to keep their political donations secret — despite the opining by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Citizens United majority opinion that prompt disclosure of corporate expenditures could be a reality “with the advent of the Internet.”
“Corporations worry about alienating their customers,” said Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine. “When customers can associate a store or company with a particular political position, they may be less likely to shop there if they disagree with that position.”
For instance, the Fix the Debt Coalition calls for dramatic reforms to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the U.S. tax code — positions that might be objectionable to some segments of the population.
The social welfare nonprofit was founded in 2012 by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and North Carolina Democrat Erskine Bowles, who served in the Clinton administration. Scores of business executives serve on its “CEO steering committee,” “CEO Council” and “Business Leaders Council.”
During its initial year, the Fix the Debt Coalition raised more than $11 million, and its donors include rail company CSX Corp. and technology firm EMC Corp., which each gave the nonprofit $1 million in 2012, according to information on the companies’ websites.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Norfolk Southern Corp. are also donors, giving $500,000 and $400,000, respectively, in 2012.
So is Allstate Corp., although the insurer did not disclose the actual amount of its contribution.
During the first nine months of 2013, the Fix the Debt Coalition reported spending $620,000 on federal lobbying to fix “U.S. long-term debt and deficits.”
Maya MacGuineas, president of the Fix the Debt Coalition, said that while the “bulk” of the group’s funding comes from businesses, donors get “zilch” in return.
Donors are “not getting anything directly out of this,” she said. “We don’t ask them for input.”
Getting the nation’s debt on a downward path, MacGuineas added, is “really patriotic” and “a public interest issue.”
Additionally, General Electric Co. and Qualcomm Inc. each reported giving $1 million in 2012 to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the Fix the Debt Coalition’s parent organization. Organized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, it raised nearly $15 million that year.
Another corporation-funded nonprofit whose donors may face backlash from consumers is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry-backed trade group that promotes the use of coal. It’s particularly unpopular among environmentalists.
It raised $43 million in 2012, according to an annual tax filing.
Voluntary corporate disclosures show that several energy and transportation companies in the Fortune 300 are among its funders, including Norfolk Southern ($835,000), American Electric Power ($503,000), CSX ($242,000), Union Pacific Corp. ($242,000), and Southern Co. (at least $50,000).
Support flows to think tanks, advocacy groups
Meanwhile, Third Way — a centrist think tank based in Washington, D.C., that counts a dozen Democratic members of Congress among its advisers — was also routinely mentioned in corporate filings.
According to the Center for Public Integrity’s research, at least 10 of the largest 300 public companies collectively gave Third Way more than $270,000 in 2012. They ranged from Hewlett-Packard Co. to Pacific Gas & Electric to Johnson & Johnson.
Two other companies — Minnesota-based Target Corp. and Tennessee-based International Paper Co. — also both disclosed financial assistance to Third Way but declined to put dollar amounts on their support.
The social welfare nonprofit, which tax records show raised $9.3 million in 2012, has recently been caught in a heated debate after two of its officers urged Democrats to avoid “economic populism” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.