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Top Megadonors and Corporations Have Poured Almost $2 Billion Into Politics Since Citizens United

And thanks to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010, it is not possible to know precisely how much money corporations have channeled into dark money groups that influence elections.

sign: democracy not for sale

Protesters gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks during a press conference July 30, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

"This is not what democracy looks like. This is the world Citizens United made."

"After Citizens United, corporations appear to have become political piggybanks for the ruling class."
—Rick Claypool, Public Citizen

Alan Zibel, research director of Public Citizen's Corporate Presidency Project, made that declaration Wednesday as his group released a pair of reports about the money that ultrarich individuals and corporations have poured into American politics since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission on Jan. 21, 2010.

With its contentious 5-4 judgement, the high court effectively enabled corporations to spend an unlimited amount of money with the aim of influencing elections. Over the past decade, pro-democracy advocates have raised alarm about the consequences of the decision and called on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn it.

The new Public Citizen reports—Oligarch Overload and Corporations United—bolster the arguments that critics of the court's decision have made over the past 10 years.

Oligarch Overload found that since the Supreme Court's ruling, "just 25 ultrarich individual political donors, including numerous billionaires, have poured nearly $1.4 billion into super PACs." Putting that figure into context, Public Citizen explained that "the political donations of these 25 people and their spouses amounted to nearly half of nearly $3 billion in total individual super PAC donations from 2010-2020."

The top 10 big spenders, as listed in the report, were Sheldon and Miriam Adelson ($292 million); Tom Steyer ($255 million); Michael Bloomberg ($155 million); Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein ($72 million); Fred Eychaner ($64 million); James and Marilyn Simons ($62 million); Donald Sussman ($57 million); Joe and Marlene Ricketts: ($46 million); Paul Singer ($45 million); and George Soros ($44 million). Both Steyer and Bloomberg are seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

"This surge in megadonors over the past decade means that the 10-year mark of the Citizens United decision is something to bemoan rather than commemorate," said Zibel, the report's author.

Both Democrats and Republicans have benefited from this flood of money from the ultrarich. According to the report:

In the early years of the post-Citizens United era, the amount of money donated to outside spending groups was heavily tilted in favor of Republicans. But Democrats have become increasingly reliant on super PAC funding from hedge fund managers, bankers and other financial executives supplied. The financial industry represented 74% of funding for pro-Democrat outside spending efforts in the 2017-2018 cycle compared with 25% of funding for pro-Republican efforts, a 2019 Public Citizen analysis found. In the 2017-2018 cycle the top individual donors gave $359 million, or 52%, to outside spending groups benefiting Democrats and $312 million, or 45%, to benefiting Republicans.

Public Citizen also detailed a racial divide in terms of individual donations to super PACs and political campaigns from 2010 through 2018. Based on an analysis of more than 16,700 zip codes, the group found that donors in the top 10 majority white zip codes gave $1.85 billion while donors in the top 10 majority-minority zip codes gave $179 million—or less than a tenth of the donations from mostly white communities.

Individual contributions to campaigns and parties are capped, but there's no limit for giving to super PACs, which can solicit and spend unlimited amounts as long as they don't give money to candidates or parties, or coordinate directly with campaigns. Oligarch Overload pointed out that "individual donors are the primary funders of super PACs, which are required to disclose their donors, unlike 'dark money' nonprofits, which are not required to do so."

Corporations United—authored by Rick Claypool, a research director for Public Citizen's president's office—addresses corporate spending on political elections.

"Thanks to Citizens United, corporations can now channel as much money as they want into dark money groups that influence elections—over $1 billion and counting—so it's not possible to know exactly how much corporate election spending is occurring," the report explained.

"Nevertheless, FEC data from the Center for Responsive Politics (OpenSecrets.org) reveals that over 2,200 corporations have reported a total of $310 million in donations to over 500 political entities for the purpose of influencing elections," the report continued. "The top 20 corporate donors account for $118 million—more than a third—of the corporate donations reported to the FEC."

Only four of the report's top 20 corporate donors are publicly traded companies—three energy giants (Chevron, NextEra Energy, and Pinnacle West Capital) and RAI Services Co., part of the tobacco company Reynolds American Inc. Among both public and private political corporations, the greatest number (seven) are fossil fuel companies.

In addition to the money that goes directly from corporations to political entities, Public Citizen documented 30 corporate trade groups that don't disclose donors spending $226 million on influencing elections—which brought the total for corporate political spending to at least $539 million. As the report put it, "This is almost certainly an undercount."

"The surge in corporate spending primarily benefited a handful of super PACs that were dedicated to electing Republicans during the Obama administration and/or supporting candidates in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries," according to Corporations United.

Although the report focused on corporate rather than individual political spending, it noted that "all 20 of the reported corporate donors have executives, chairpersons, or other top figures who have who also have donated generously to political campaigns—collectively, more than $127 million, mostly to support Republicans." Additionally, among the 16 private companies, more than half are run by by billionaires.

"After Citizens United, corporations appear to have become political piggybanks for the ruling class," Claypool concluded. "It's through these insidious means that wealthy interests drown out the voices of struggling Americans."

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