When people learn that the U.S. Government is the top contributor to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, their reaction is oftentimes one of surprise, even confusion. "How can the U.S. Government be a campaign contributor?" they ask.
It's a great question. The answer is that the U.S. Government, itself, can't be.
Employees of the U.S. Government, however, are a different story, and that's exactly who's given $2.1 million dollars to the campaign of Barack Obama (and over $500,000 to Mitt Romney).
To be clear, it's no mistake that the name of the U.S. Government claims the #1 spot when the contributions "it" has given are in fact from its employees. When calculating total contributions from a company or organization, it's standard practice for campaign finance analysts to include contributions from that entity's employees. Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and a whole host of other big companies decorate Obama and Romney's top donors lists — in each one of these cases, the majority of the contributions have come from the company's employees.
There are a couple of reasons why it makes sense to count contributions from a company or organization's employees in its total.
First, the main point of calculating total contributions is to shed light on money influencing our political system. Influence happens when large political contributions represent clear cut, special interests. Contribution checks don't have to be signed by a company's CFO in order to represent that company's interests. Individual employees, to the extent that they benefit from their employer's success (e.g., bonuses, raises, continued employment, etc), share its interests. So when hundreds of a company or organization's employees all decide to open their checkbooks for a candidate, resulting in millions of dollars contributed, that company or organization's interests are being represented by those dollars, and influence is being exerted.
Additionally, it's a common practice for high-ranking individuals within a company or organization to act as "bundlers" — people who work to gather many individual contributions for a particular campaign. In other words, when you see hundreds or thousands of individual contributions coming from a particular company, it's probably not the case that hundreds or thousands of people within that company woke up one morning and spontaneously felt called to contribute: there may well have been somebody within that company doing the calling.
Notwithstanding these good reasons for including employee contributions when calculating totals for a company or organization, it's important to note a potential danger of this methodology: it's easy, when we see six- or seven-figure numbers next to a company or organization name, to forget that most of that money is coming from individuals who have the company or organization's interests at heart, not the company or organization itself. But as Rootstrikers' first Capital in the Capitol infographic clearly highlights, two-thirds of all contributions are indeed coming from individuals.
This may seem like a nuanced point, but it's important to keep in mind as we fight for reform: until we find a way to curb the aggregate influence of wealthy, individual donors the problem of money in politics will remain unsolved.
To address your point below about super PACs — I think you’re absolutely right when you say below that the individuals who donate millions of dollars to them are wielding inappropriate amounts of influence over public elections. However, I again think it’s important to keep things in perspective — Obama’s campaign has raised 10 times as much in direct contributions as his affiliated super PAC has. And this isn’t exceptional — super PACs get a whole lot of attention, but they’re just the frosting on the cake; they account for a small percentage of the total money that’s being raised and spent to influence our elections. The vast majority of money comes in the form of direct contributions to candidate campaigns, as depicted by this OpenSecrets chart: http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2012/08/2012-election-will-be-costliest-yet.html#more
At our last planning meeting this issue was heatedly discussed, which caused me to post my comments. In fact, we debated whether distributing the Obama infographic showing the U.S. Gov. as top donor would be counterproductive and weaken the message. The consensus was that it would divert some attention from the message, but overall it will give most potential voters information they would not otherwise get, and hopefully encourage them to start paying attention to the problem.
We anticipate there will be more and better data coming out about the funders after the election.
There are any number of ways to highlight the most influential funders of election campaigns. For example, on the Public Citizen website you can find out who Obamaâs bundlers are and how much they raised. Hereâs a link:
The OpenSecrets website has a page about bundlers for Obama and Romney, which shows that a relatively small number of bundlers bring in such enormous sums that they are undoubtedly among the most influential funders to these campaigns. Hereâs the link:
The Washington Post website has a page titled 2012 Presidential Campaign Finance Explorer, which shows, among other useful information, the 16 Super Pac contributors who donated $2 million or more for Obama and Romney. The largest is over $17 million. No one reading this data can avoid thinking that these funders already do have or will have unfair influence on the candidates. Hereâs the link:
The Rootstrikers data listing top donors is technically correct depending on how one chooses to record and report campaign contributions. It is somewhat useful to show the large amounts that the candidates must raise and who is contributing. But it misses the mark, if the intent is to show the most influential funders and the enormous amounts such funders bring to the campaigns.