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Davis, California

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Column: Money and politics

As the battle over government spending rages across the country, especially near here in Sacramento, one of the standard charges levied against folks on the right is that they – well, we – are beholden to big business.

Usually the attack revolves around large campaign donations being almost exclusively given to Republican politicians, who turn around and use their power to help big business at the expense of the little guy.

In many circles, this allegation is accepted as fact and frequently used to impugn the motivations of conservatives and business leaders. Sometimes the actual argument or idea is never addressed, as long as the speaker’s credibility can be an easier target.

For example, after about 90 seconds on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s website, I found a perfect example in a press release dated Jan. 23.

“House Republican Leader Eric Cantor and House Republicans love their new ‘cut and grow’ catch phrase but it means cuts to protections against corporate special interests and growing campaign contributions for House Republicans,” said spokesperson Jesse Ferguson.

Though the release went on at length showing the connections between campaign contributions and Republicans, nowhere did it substantially “fact check” the merits of cutting spending as good economic policy.

Seeking a more scientific method of determining whether Republicans really are the pawns of big business, I investigated the campaign finance reports of four local representatives in the House: Mike Thompson (D-Napa), Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) and Tom McClintock (R-Roseville).

I came to know Mike Thompson’s campaign finance reports when I was working for the last candidate running against him. Thompson won, of course, and remains the representative for the district encompassing UC Davis.

Tom McClintock, on the other hand, I helped get elected in 2008, in one of the narrowest races nationwide. (I was glad to see him win because he was a great boss, but more importantly, a history buff who quizzed my knowledge on a couple occasions. No one can tell me it’s useless information to know the Battle of Lepanto was in 1571. But I digress.)

I decided to take a look at the top 20 donors by dollar amount for each representative, based on the 2009-10 election cycle. Because of the way campaign finance laws are written, the top donors are usually political action committees, so they appear much more often than individual people. What those committees are, however, makes for a very interesting study of American politics.

For all four representatives, a number of other entities round out the top 20, such as the Blue Dog PAC and the Freedom Project. There is no end to lessons that can be gleaned from actually studying where your representative is getting his or her money, but for the sake of a short column I’ll focus exclusively on the big business vs. labor union divide.

Out of those top 20, Thompson has the following well-known large businesses donating $10,000 through a PAC: Bank of America, New York Life Insurance, Home Depot, Johnson & Johnson, KPMG LLP, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance and Raytheon Company. The Sheet Metal Workers Union, the Plumbers/Pipefitters Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were contributing labor organizations.

Rep. Matsui also received $10,000 from AFLAC Inc., American Crystal Sugar, Home Depot and New York Life Insurance. GenCorp Inc. gave $7,500, Comcast coughed up $6,500, and Kelley, Drye & Warren LLP $5,999, with again a few labor unions among the top.

McClintock received $12,500 from AT&T, $10,000 from Honeywell International, $5,000 from Valero and $3,000 from Occidental Petroleum. No labor unions contributed.

Finally, Lungren’s top business PACs were Berkshire Hathaway at $12,000, with $10,000 from Chevron, Intel, AT&T, Koch Industries, Honeywell International, GenCorp Inc., CSX Corp, Comcast Corp and Experian. Again, not one union.

It doesn’t take an expert in McCain-Feingold campaign finance law to see that big money is coming into the coffers of all four representatives from big business. In fact, it strikes me that Republican McClintock got a heck of a lot fewer large checks from big corporations than Democrats Thompson or Matsui.

At least judging from our local representatives – and trust me, we are no exception – in no way can it be said that Democrats are free of connections to big business. They just have a handful of labor organizations funding them as well.

We cannot draw the conclusion that Republicans don’t have business financiers who expect certain favors in return. But the allegation that Republicans alone are in bed with big business is ridiculous when we dig deeper.

Big business doesn’t invest in Republicans alone. Big business invests in those with power, left or right, constantly seeking favorable regulations, tax loopholes, subsidies, contracts and more.

We would all do better to put this accusation to rest.

E-mail ROB OLSON at rwolson@ucdavis.edu.


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