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Are Businesses the Victims of Citizens United, Too?

Big corporations have been portrayed as the villains in the story of this year’s explosion in campaign spending, unloading vast sums of money to elect candidates who will then go to Washington to better their bottom line. Turns out a lot of businesses, however, feel like they’re the ones getting shaken down by the new system, with a new poll indicating that six in ten business leaders say they’re under a lot of pressure to contribute to political campaigns.

The poll, conducted by Zogby International and commissioned by the business-led Committee for Economic Development (CED), surveyed 301 business leaders and presents a somewhat counter-intuitive look at their opinions of the current state of nondisclosure in the political campaign finance system. Highlights pointed out by the Committee for Economic Development include:

Seventy-seven percent believe that corporations should disclose all of their direct and indirect political expenditures, including money provided to third party organizations to be spent on campaign ads. The poll also found that ninety-three percent of business leaders believe that corporate boards should be informed of the beneficiaries and purposes of the company’s direct and indirect political spending. Two-thirds polled agreed with the statement: “the lack of transparency and oversight in corporate political activity encourages behavior that puts corporations at legal risk and endangers corporate reputations.”

“This poll underscores what business people across America already know: the political system is broken and large amounts of money are flooding the system and corrupting the democratic process,” said Ed Kangas, a CED Trustee and the former Chairman and CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, in a statement. “These huge undisclosed contributions that pay for campaign ads are distorting the political process and are a major reason why Congress has become so dysfunctional.”

I hadn’t heard of CED before reading about the results of this survey. The group’s Board of Trustees contains a lot of heavy hitters, however, including representatives from Yahoo!, Delta Airlines, the Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, and it describes itself as a “non-profit, non-partisan business led public policy organization.” Whether it has the ability to exert any political weight in a potentially renewed fight in Congress for disclosure is unclear at this point.

It makes a measure of sense, however, why some companies might be upset with the new system: With more opportunities to give, companies that would rather use their treasuries for other purposes might feel increased pressure to keep up with rival businesses or industries in playing the contributions game. This in turn creates an arms race in which more and more business and labor interests are dragged into the political fight when they could be spending their money more productively. With greater restrictions, at least they could be assured of an even playing field.

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