Capitol building
Credit: Daniel Huizinga/Flickr

When Democrats talk about the influence of corporate money in politics, they aren’t usually referring to donations to specific political campaigns. That’s because corporations aren’t allowed to contribute to them, while individuals are limited to $2,800. The Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United, however, changed the equation when it allowed unlimited donations to super PACs, which are barred from coordinating with a campaign but still pump lots of cash into elections (even though they don’t have a great record of success).

Along those lines, it’s important to keep in mind that, when it comes to direct contributions to political campaigns, we’ve witnessed a sea change since Howard Dean made small individual donations over the internet a revolutionary idea. Just before the 2018 midterms, reporters at FiveThirtyEight captured the impact of ActBlue.

ActBlue, a nonprofit whose online fundraising tools have been used to varying degrees by nearly every Democrat running for Congress, says it has raised more than $2.9 billion for Democrats and progressive organizations since its founding in 2004. September was the biggest month in its history.

An analysis of campaign finance data by FiveThirtyEight and the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization, shows that ActBlue is handling more political contributions than ever before. Between January 2017 and Sept. 30, 2018,2 nearly $564 million, or about 55 percent of all contributions from individual donors to Democratic congressional candidates, passed through the platform, compared to about 19 percent at this point in the 2014 election.

Keep in mind: ActBlue has raised that $2.9 billion with average donations of less than $40, well under the legal maximum for an individual. That is why Republicans referred to the 2018 midterm elections as a “green wave” and set out to develop their own online fundraising tool called “WinRed,” which doesn’t seem to be going very well.

All of that is perhaps why Elizabeth Warren’s plan to address political corruption doesn’t deal with campaign finance issues, but instead, focuses on lobbying. To evaluate that approach, we need to understand what lobbyists can and can’t do. The vast majority of their money goes to salaries, researching legislation, finding experts to testify, and media campaigns. They can’t pay for congressional travel or give gifts in excess of $50.

The real issue is that, with the decimation of congressional support services, elected officials rely on “industry experts” (i.e., lobbyists) to research, propose, and provide public relations for major pieces of legislation. That might work well when the lobbyists are criminal justice reform activists, but not so much when corporations pool their resources to fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Here is how that group describes itself.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is America’s largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.

Here is how Brookings described what they do.

ALEC members, including state legislators and corporate representatives, meet in task forces on specific issue areas (i.e., environment and energy, worker’s rights, etc.) and collaborate to write model legislation. Once the task force completes a model bill it is approved by the ALEC membership and governing board.  Once bills clear those hurdles, they become official ALEC “model policies,” which are disseminated to state legislators.

The result was laws to ban sanctuary cities, protect fracking, and limit attempts to address climate change.

This is why it is important for voters to be informed about political corruption rather than simply become cynical about a so-called “rigged system.” As an example, we can examine something that happened in my home state of Minnesota. It involves a tax on medical devices included in Obamacare. Jonathan Chait explains what happened.

When Democrats wrote the Affordable Care Act, they paid for it in part by cutting back payments to medical providers. The logic was that, since the government was going to create tens of millions of new paying customers, the industry that would profit from serving those customers could contribute some of its windfall to financing their care and still come out even. Doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and insurers all accepted this bargain, but the one sector that refused was the medical device industry. So rather than let the medical device industry get away with being the one sector that enjoyed the profit from a coverage expansion without bearing any of the cost, lawmakers imposed a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices.

The industry lobbied heavily against the tax, spending millions of dollars on contracts with lobbying firms. It just so happens that the medical device industry has a major presence in my home state, as Minnpost reported.

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, 28,731 Minnesotans are directly employed by about 610 companies in the medical device sector…

The economic footprint of Minnesota’s medical-device industry goes beyond those directly employed by medical device firms, too. The industry’s supply chain and broader ecosystem supports as many as 100,000 jobs in Minnesota, according to Medical Alley Association, the state’s leading trade group for the medical technology sector. Medical Alley estimates that the industry generated $3.8 billion in economic impact, which it defines as total wages paid to industry employees.

Similarly, Massachusetts is a major hub for the medical device industry. As a result, liberal Democrats like Al Franken, Ed Markey, and Warren all supported the repeal of the medical device tax. Warren even wrote an op-ed advocating repeal in the industry’s newsletter. But it wasn’t just liberal Democrats, every federal legislator from Minnesota—both Democratic and Republican—called for its repeal, even Rep. Collin Peterson, who received no campaign contributions from the industry.

The question this raises is whether all of those politicians were corrupted by corporate money or were acting in what they considered to be the best interests of workers in their state. Unless you are willing to throw elected officials like Franken, Markey, and Warren into the grab bag of corrupted politicians, you have to acknowledge that the picture is more complex than a lot of us assume.

None of this is meant to suggest that corruption doesn’t exist. It’s an argument against those who immediately assign nefarious motives to all politicians in both parties. The fact of the matter is that our democracy is in the process of being broken. That’s primarily because of one party’s attempt to infuse money into politics, ignore ethical restraints, gerrymander congressional districts, and threaten voting rights. The Democratic Party has passed a bill in the House called the “For the People Act” that is designed to repair the damage. The best way to deal with corruption in Washington is to elect people who promise to support that effort.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.