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Jill Ward is the president of the board of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. James Kilbreth is the president of the board of MCCE Action.
Before cleaning and repair crews had even finished restoring the U.S. Capitol, signs had emerged of another momentous occurrence, this time in the halls of corporate America.
The political power of America’s business elites — usually obscured behind lobbyists and the etched glass windows of corporate boardrooms — has been in the spotlight as companies such as Walmart, Marriott and Google recoiled from the mayhem around our national government. These companies suspended contributions from their political action committees to 147 members of Congress who voted to challenge the 2020 Electoral College result. Other corporations have suspended political giving altogether.
Whether they wielded their power selectively or across the board, the fact that corporations have this power in the first place should also draw headlines across the nation. Corporations donate to political candidates — in Maine as in Washington — because they believe it will benefit their bottom line. By gaining access to prospective legislators, corporations seek to influence public policy for their benefit on issues like tax incentives, consumer regulation and worker’s rights.
Many of these corporations give significantly to candidates in both parties so that they will have easy access no matter which side wins the majority. Corporations that give indiscriminately to both sides have the effect of propping up candidates with whom they might disagree on many issues. Corporations that indiscriminately withhold their donations in this moment are shirking responsibility for doing so.
Either way, it’s a distortion of public will. And the fact that institutional money is now finally reckoning with what they have wrought does not mean their money should be allowed to have so much influence on candidate viability going forward.
An analysis by Public Citizen shows that, since 2016, corporate political action committees (PACs) and industry trade associations have contributed $170 million to the campaign war chests of these 147 members of Congress. Nineteen of these PACs have given at least $1 million, and 46 of the PACs have supported at least 50 percent of these lawmakers. The five largest political contributors are the National Association of Realtors, the American Bankers Association, National Automobile Dealers Association, National Beer Wholesalers Association and AT&T. Only a small handful of these major donors have publicly discussed their intention to reconsider these giving habits.
Once this crisis moment has passed, will the money begin to flow again? Or can we use this moment to call on all corporations to shut down their political action committees, and stop funding PACs that spend in elections? We know that one blue chip corporation, IBM, has contributed mightily to American commerce for over 100 years and wielded profound influence without ever playing the political contribution game.
Here in Maine, corporations gave more than $1.5 million to candidates and candidate-controlled PACs in the 2020 election cycle. The largest contributors, from the energy, healt hcare and pharmaceutical industries, are major players in Augusta. We shouldn’t have to hope that corporations will choose to do the right thing with their influence. Our democracy cannot thrive on these foundations.
This session, the Maine Legislature can recognize this unique moment by passing a ban on corporate contributions to put the power to influence public policy back in the hands of Maine voters.