Are Corporations Accountable for Their Political Spending?

reflection of capitol hill in a body of water.
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This past January marked 14 years since the Supreme Court’s consequential ruling in the “Citizens United” case, the case that essentially removed all limits on corporations’ spending to support candidates for elected office, so long as they do not officially coordinate with campaigns. But political contributions from companies have serious consequences for communities and the planet, for which they need to be held accountable.

Fortunately, several organizations have stepped up in recent years to increase transparency around corporate political spending and help their customers, the media, and others hold companies accountable for their actions. Open Secrets, which tracks and publishes data on campaign finance and corporate lobbying, is one of them. Their deputy research director Brendan Glavin says that, traditionally, companies focus primarily on their business interests when it comes to political contributions. “They’re thinking about bills pertaining to a specific business; telecom or wireless or cable or whatever it might be.”

But those contributions to lawmakers that may benefit the business side of a company may also be actively harming a community that the company claims to care about. For example, Amazon has earned perfect scores on its internal practices and benefits related to LGBTQ+ workplace inclusion, as measured by the Human Rights Campaign’s 2023-2024 Corporate Equality Index. At the same time, it is one of the largest contributors to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians in Tennessee, which has passed several anti-LGBTQ+ bills since 2023.

In a way, companies are hedging their bets—stating to their consumer audience and their employees that they support issues like LGBTQ+ equality, the right to choose, and protection of our democracy, while donating thousands of dollars to organizations that work against these goals. For example, 13 corporations, including Amazon, AT&T, Citi bank, Walmart, Verizon, and Wells Fargo, have spent millions of dollars since 2016 supporting politicians who are working to rollback reproductive freedom. And AT&T is also among one of the biggest anti-democracy spenders, making numerous contributions to politicians who objected to the 2020 election results and state officials who support anti-voter legislation.

Still other companies rely on trade associations or corporate lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange (ALEC) to do their lobbying for them and keep their names at a further remove from their political spending.

Alongside Open Secrets, The Center for Media and Democracy and also help people connect the dots between what companies say and what they do. They aggregate contribution data into reports, blogs, and searchable databases for citizens to access. Their work makes it easy for people to follow the money.

David Armik, research director at the Center for Media and Democracy, says that overturning Citizens United would be a way to bring integrity back to politics and “get back to a situation where politicians actually listen to their constituents and visit with their constituents, rather than those that give them a bunch of money.”

You can also play a role in ending corporate influence in politics by supporting candidates that advocate for a constiitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. If you own stock, you can also support shareholder resolutions calling for corporate disclosure of political donations at the companies in which you invest. Still other resolutions call for companies to report on how their political spending aligns with their stated corporate goals around issues like the climate crisis.

Armik also reminds individuals that we can always simply ask a candidate where they get their campaign dollars and what companies back them. Every state maintains a campaign disclosure website, although some are harder to navigate than others. Open Secrets’ database covers federal disclosures.

None of this means that all companies act only in their own interests. Thousands of mission-focused businesses are doing all they can to improve situations for marginalized communities and the planet. Green America’s Green Business Network is made up of over 3,000 businesses that lead with integrity, social responsibility, and planetary care.

Using the power of your vote at the ballot box, with your shareholder proxies, and at the cash register are all effective ways we can enact change.

From Green American Magazine Issue