Robert Maguire

In the wake of recent national conversations about police violence, systemic racism, and sexual assault, Americans have become increasingly accustomed to hearing Fortune 500 companies weighing in with flashy statements on social issues. Rarely, though, do the PR statements come with any tangible action — until, that is, the deadly insurrection on January 6th. 

As the dust settled at the Capitol, a chorus of the country’s largest companies and their trade associations spoke out. The Business Roundtable, an industry group that represents the CEOs of corporations like Amazon and General Motors, denounced the “inexcusable violence,” calling for “the nation and lawmakers to unite around President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris.” The body spray company Axe denounced the “acts of violence and hate at the Capitol,” and oil giant Chevron called for “a peaceful transition of the U.S. government” — a sentiment that was later echoed by Coca-Cola. And Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s went further, demanding in a Twitter thread that Trump resign or be removed through impeachment or the 25th amendment. 

But these statements were only the beginning. By our count, nearly 190 companies pledged to halt donations from their political action committees (PACs) in direct response to the violence, thus cutting lawmakers off from the lifeblood of their political existence — for now, at least. In the coming months, CREW will be tracking to see just how long these corporate pledges hold up.

“We can’t depend on corporations’ newfound civic courage to last without external pressure.”

While many of these actions have been commendable it shows how broken our campaign finance system is that the most effective means of accountability for federal lawmakers is wielded by corporations whose primary allegiance is to their shareholders, not their country.

In Washington, D.C., and state capitals around the country, money is the fuel that feeds political influence, and it flows mainly from big business. In 2020, business PACs gave more than $377 million in contributions — nearly double the combined total given by all other PACs, including labor and ideological groups.  

Knowing the power of corporate money, there’s a certain sordid logic to the fact that after an armed insurrection instigated by President Trump and several Republican members of Congress, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t hold town halls with their constituents. Instead, they called their donors. McConnell reportedly held a call with top contributors the weekend after the insurrection, while McCarthy did the same after the impeachment vote days later. Clearly, McCarthy and McConnell believed it was corporate concerns they needed to address in the aftermath of a threat to our democracy — not the concerns of voters. 

In light of that reality, it’s important to understand the glaring loophole in our ability to verify that corporations are living up to their pledges: For all we know, the same companies that have made splashy statements about halting their donations could be giving right now as we speak, using anonymously funded dark money groups to facilitate their continued support for the members of Congress they need access to and influence over. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen companies say one thing in public, and do another thing in private, using the cover of groups that don’t disclose their donors. Dark money provides companies a platform to engage in civic-minded PR or avoid public association with toxic politicians, while secretly fueling groups that send a very different message. Under current law , these contributions mostly stay forever hidden from public view, absent an accidental disclosure or a successful seven-year court battle

It’s good that wealthy executives and business PACs lent their power and influence to the push for accountability in the wake of the armed white supremacist attack on our the Capitol building, but without stronger, more durable commitments, the effects of these actions will fade quickly. That’s why CREW will be monitoring these companies in the coming weeks and months and calling them out, if and when they start to give again. 

After all, the reason that corporations give political donations in the first place is not for love of country or even political ideology. It’s because our elected representatives are making decisions every day that impact their bottom line. They want to influence that process, regardless of the toxic politicians they bolster in the process. For companies raking in billions of dollars a year, even those that employ high-power lobbyists, the additional cost of campaign contributions and dark money donations is a drop in the bucket. 

This is no secret. Some corporations and industry groups referenced the rules of the Washington influence game in their statements announcing they were cutting off donations. The Edison Electric Institute, a trade organization representing electric utility companies, called their contributions “part of our work with policymakers on both sides of the political aisle to advance policies.” Tobacco company Altria also linked their donations to the policy process, saying in a statement, “We have a long history of supporting policy makers on both sides of the aisle because participation in the political and public policy processes is vital to our business.” And Microsoft President Brad Smith explained during an employee town hall, “You have to write a check and then you’re invited and participate… [T]he reason you go is because the PAC writes a check.”

Eventually, as the barricades around the Capitol come down and relative order returns to Washington, many of these businesses are going to feel pressure to start giving again — teaching the members who fueled the bloody attack that there are no long-term consequences for their actions. We can’t depend on corporations’ newfound civic courage to last without external pressure.  

In order for the commitments made in the wake of the insurrection to actually have an impact, corporations must make them durable. First, regarding the members of Congress who make no effort to express contrition and repentance for their role in helping to foment the baseless conspiracies that led to the attack, contributions should be cut off permanently. Second, companies should commit not only to greater voluntary measures of transparency for themselves, but they should support an overhaul of the campaign finance system that gives them such outsized power. 

It sounds absurd to suggest they ever would, but they have seen over the last four years leading up to the storming of the Capitol that a demagogue in the White House — who was fueled, paradoxically, both by wealthy elites and populist outrage at them — can start trade wars, enact travel bans, and botch a pandemic response, dealing real and lasting damage to the stability and continuity companies so dearly rely on.  

Whether or not corporations throw their weight behind reforms, the fact is they aren’t holding all the cards. The new Senate majority recently put forward its first bill, the For the People Act, which offers sweeping reforms aimed at giving a greater voice to regular Americans, fighting disinformation, and closing loopholes that allow corporations and other wealthy donors to buy access to lawmakers in secret. This should be a no-brainer — a start in the long road to returning control of the government to the people

Until we do that, Americans’ faith and trust in their democracy will continue to be eroded by a system that rations political access, often in secret, based on financial resources — effectively locking most Americans out of meaningful participation. The past year has been the clarion call we needed to once and for all commit to turning this around and start building a system that doesn’t rely on Microsoft or Altria to hold the line for the good of the Republic.