In their majority opinion for Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court wrote that corporate spending to influence elections would not “give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Four years later, a comprehensive new study from The Sunlight Foundation is challenging that assumption. Researchers working on the year-long investigation looked at campaign contributions and lobbying costs for 200 of America’s largest corporations between 2007-20012, a period defined by a massive increase in outside political spending coinciding with the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions.

Chart provided by Opensecrets.org
Chart provided by Opensecrets.org

So, what did they find? 

During the 6 years covered by the study, the top 200 politically active corporations spent a total of $5.8 billion dollars on federal lobbying ($5.1 billion) and campaign contributions ($597 million). Those are awfully big numbers and they seem even larger when you realize that while the 200 corporations represent just 1% of all lobbying clients, their spending accounted for a whopping 26% of total lobbying expenditures. 

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What did they get out of it?

This is where things get really interesting; according to the report, all of that spending “pales compared to what those same corporations got: $4.4 trillion in federal business and support.” To put that number in perspective, it’s roughly 2/3rds of $6.5 trillion individual tax-payers paid to the Treasury during the same period.

In other words, the government gave 200 corporations, who just happen to be major political donors, the equivalent of 4 years worth of individual tax revenue over this 6 year period.

For every dollar spent influencing politics, the 200 corporations were rewarded with an average of $760 dollars from the government in the form of contracts, tax breaks, or other financial perks. 102 of the corporations in the study received financial benefits from the federal government worth 10 times or more than what they invested in lobbyists and political donations and 29 received 1,000 times or more. If that’s not enough to demonstrate at least “an appearance of corruption” I don’t know what is.

If you’re interested in learning more about this story, this interview with Sunlight Foundation Editorial Director Bill Allison is well worth a listen:

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