PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) – As shockwaves have swept across the country since the Jan.6 uprising on the United States Capitol, American businesses have taken a stand against the lies that have fueled the crowds. Or that’s what it seemed.
Dozens of large companies, citing their commitment to democracy, have pledged to avoid giving money to the 147 lawmakers who opposed Congress’ certification of Joe Biden’s victory on the grounds that voter fraud stole the elections then President Donald Trump.
It was a striking gesture from some of the best-known names in business, but it turned out to be largely an empty gesture.
Six months later, many of these companies have resumed funneling money to political action committees that benefit lawmakers’ election efforts, whether or not they opposed voter certification. When it comes to seeking political influence through corporate donations, the status quo is back, if ever it goes.
Walmart, Pfizer, Intel, General Electric and AT&T are among the companies that announced their commitments in the name of democracy days after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a violent attempt to disrupt the transfer of power.
Businesses argue that donating directly to a candidate is not the same as giving to a PAC that supports them. Given the porosity of US campaign finance laws, this is an indistinguishable distinction to campaign finance experts.
The companies’ argument also overlooks the fact that, to a large extent, they made their donations through PACs prior to their engagement, rather than to individuals, so in many cases nothing has changed.
“Committing not to give to a certain person doesn’t mean much when there are so many other ways that corporate money gets to elected officials,” said Daniel Weiner, a former senior lawyer at the Federal Election Commission now working at the Brennan Center. for Justice at New York University Law School. “These promises are largely symbolic. “
Walmart’s moral position lasted for three months. In January, the retail giant announced it would suspend all donations to 147 lawmakers who opposed the election results. But in April, the company donated $ 30,000 to the Republican National Committee of Congress, the party organization that backs House Republicans in elections.
Two-thirds of those House members voted against certifying Biden’s victory.
Walmart gave an additional $ 30,000 to the House Senate Republicans’ counterpart, the National Republican Senate Committee. This group is led by an opponent of the certification of the election, Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who is expected to benefit from the contribution along with seven other GOP senators who have also sought to overthrow the will of the voters. Messages left for the two committees by the Associated Press were not returned.
In January, after the attack, General Electric said it would “halt donations to lawmakers who voted against certification” because “we believe it is important to ensure that our future contributions continue to reflect the values and l ‘commitment of our company to democracy “. But that’s not exactly what happened.
In April, General Electric donated $ 15,000 each to GOP electoral groups in the House and Senate.
Likewise, Pfizer has pledged to suspend contributions to Republican opponents for six months. But after only three months, he gave $ 20,000 to the GOP Senate group. Pfizer spokeswoman Sharon Castillo told the AP the company was making a distinction between giving money to individual lawmakers and to groups created to help those same lawmakers. “We just don’t think it’s a precise connection,” she said.
Still, she said Pfizer had no commitment from the Senate Election Commission that the company’s donation would not be used to benefit the eight senators who voted against certification.
AT&T also pledged not to give money to lawmakers who opposed it, but the company sent $ 5,000 in February to the House Conservatives Fund. Company spokeswoman Margaret Boles said AT&T was assured the money would not flow to lawmakers who oppose the election results, despite the PAC being led by a lawmaker who did.
Campaign finance experts say there is no way of knowing whether money given to Republican PACs will end up directly in the campaign accounts of incumbents who opposed the election results. These Republican committees, like those of the Democrats, assist incumbents in a variety of ways, from direct contributions to technical and professional assistance with voter data, advertising, and voting assistance.
Additionally, corporate donations to party committees do not include so-called hidden cash contributions made to groups that are not required to publicly disclose details. Black money is a preferred vehicle for corporate donations.
“It’s completely frustrating from a liability standpoint,” Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson University Law School who studies corporate campaign finance.
Many lawmakers who opposed certification have relied heavily on the GOP House and Senate election committees in the past and can be expected to want substantial help from them again.
For the 2020 election, the NRCC forwarded contributions to 39 Republican lawmakers who then opposed the election outcome, compared to 11 who did not. In total, opponents of Jan. 6 received five times as much money in total last year as those who later voted to certify states’ electoral counts.
Pfizer, GE, Walmart and other companies contacted by the PA said their criticism of lawmakers opposing the election results was valid.
For other businesses, pledges may just be a cynical attempt to look good in the public eye. Few of the companies that made pledges tended to make large donations to individual lawmakers anyway, preferring large party PACs or black money groups.
Weiner said if companies were serious about using their influence to support democracy, they would fund efforts to defeat Republican measures that would make it more difficult to vote in many states.
“I don’t think these companies are giving to these groups because they supported the insurgency,” Weiner said. “They donate money – and are compelled to donate money – for many reasons, all related to their bottom line.”
Some companies have kept their commitments. Hallmark, for example, has said he will not donate to opponents – and the record to date shows no PAC donations by that company this year as well as no direct donations to 147 opponents.
Hallmark also called on two opponents, Republicans Josh Hawley of Missouri and Roger Marshall of Kansas, to return the direct contributions he paid them before the insurgency. Campaign fundraising records do not yet show these refunds. Messages soliciting comments from the two senators were not returned.
Other companies have said they will stop campaign contributions after Jan.6 to give them time to reassess their campaign fundraising strategy. This list includes Charles Schwab, Citigroup, Archer Daniels Midland, and Kraft Heinz.
The money given to Republican groups by companies that have pledged not to support opponents is small compared to the huge sums of money paid out overall. Walmart’s $ 60,000 contribution to the GOP Senate and House committees is only a fraction of the company’s overall political spending for both parties, which topped $ 5 million last year.
Companies often donate money to Democrats and Republicans as they try to cultivate good relations with the ruling party. The companies behind the commitments are no exception.
January 6 seemed to undermine this standard. The violent images on Capitol Hill were so visceral, the assault on the heart of American democracy so extraordinary, and the lies behind the attack so daring that some staunch Republicans abandoned their presidents and denounced opponents in their ranks.
If opponents got what they wanted, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky say this busy night, “Our democracy would enter a spiral of death”.
For a while, all but the 147 seemed on the angels’ side, and companies scrambled to join their pro-democracy commitments. But the devil was in the details.
Associated Press writer Calvin Woodward in Washington contributed to this report.