Yesterday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid went on a rant on the Senate floor about the Koch brothers. Reid seems to believe that the fraternal billionaires are buying America with their campaign contributions, saying “whoever has the most money gets the most free speech” — implying, I suppose, that Charles and David Koch, as some of the richest men in the world, control the most political speech. However, as the Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott noted a few weeks ago, the biggest donors in America may not be what you’d expect.
I reproduced this chart that shows the top 25 donors to political campaigns between 1989 and 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics:
Mr. Reid may be interested to know the following:
- The top campaign donor of the last 25 years is ActBlue, an online political-action committee dedicated to raising funds for Democrats. ActBlue’s political contributions, which total close to $100 million, are even more impressive when one realizes that it was only launched in 2004. That’s $100 million in ten years.
- Fourteen labor unions were among the top 25 political campaign contributors.
- Three public-sector unions were among the 14 labor groups: the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; the National Education Association; and the American Federation of Teachers. Their combined contributions amount to $150 million, or 15 percent of the top 25’s approximately $1 billion in donations since 1989.
- Public- and private-sector unions contributed 55.6 percent — $552 million — of the top 25’s contributions.
- Large private companies contributed $441 million in campaign contributions. Among them were banks and insurance firms such as JPMorgan Chase, trade associations such as the National Association of Realtors and the American Medical Association, and technology and telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Microsoft.
Unlike Mr. Reid, my interest in campaign contributions isn’t simply focused on picking out people I disagree with politically — rather, it’s because donating to political campaigns is one way that private or public interests try to win alliances of government authorities and later obtain government favors, whether loan guarantees, bailouts, a promise to block charter schools, or whatever. As public-choice economists have widely documented, the incentives to use political connections for personal gain grow as the power of government grows, and government certainly has grown.
To have a complete picture of the landscape of political influence, we have to be aware of the disparate special interests and what they’re looking for in return for political action. Large campaign contributions from any group are fair grounds for scrutiny, regardless of whether those funds came from AT&T or the Service Employees International Union.
That being said, not everyone who donates to political campaigns is trying to get government rents. Some people donate to political campaigns to help elect lawmakers who share their vision of small government, or extensive environmental regulation. There’s nothing wrong with that.