Politics & Policy

Correcting The Election Reporters

A common mistake in last week's news.

You read it often enough it is almost a cliché: Campaign-finance law is so complicated (how complicated is it, Johnny?) that…take your pick. It’s so complicated that even the experts don’t agree on the rules. It’s so complicated you need to hire a lawyer to run for office. And so on.

But here’s a rule everyone agrees on. Corporations can’t make contributions to federal campaigns. Period. Moreover, contributions by partnerships and other donors are limited to $2,000 per election per candidate. Contributions by political action committees are limited to $5,000.

Yet comes a report from the Center for Responsive Politics, headed “Top Donors to Kerry and Their Contributions to Bush” purporting to show that Kerry’s donors also donate to Bush. These findings were reported March 10 in the New York Times, and cited widely beyond that. The report lists Kerry’s “top donor” as the law firm Skadden Arps, at $105,650 to Kerry but $64,760 to Bush. Other notable Kerry donors on the list gave much, much more to Bush than Kerry. Citigroup, coming in for Kerry at $79,400, gave $187,500 to Bush, Goldman Sachs gave $64,750 to Kerry but $282,725 to Bush, and another law firm, Akin Gump, gave $43,550 to Kerry but $101,200 to Bush.

The implication, one supposes, is that donors are less interested in governing philosophy and more interesting in having an “in” with the eventual winner. Or maybe the message of the report is suppose to be that Bush’s fundraising juggernaut is so intimidating that otherwise-sensible Senator Kerry supporters have been flustered into making contributions to President Bush. Certainly a reader would be confused about how these entities could give funds so far over the contribution limits listed above.

But, in fact, the report does notshow that Kerry donors donate to Bush. As noted by the Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk what the report shows is that some people who work for certain big employers give to Bush, and others at those same employers give to Kerry. That’s hardly newsworthy. But what the Center for Responsive Politics did in its report is lump individual donors together by employer. They seem to want readers to believe that a contribution by someone working at Goldman Sachs is the same as Goldman Sachs itself making a contribution.

How did they know who worked where? Federal election laws require campaigns to report the employer and occupation of each donor who gives over $200 in a cycle, along with that donor’s name and address. That information is easily found on the Internet, and groups like the Center can download the contributions records, and analyze them in a variety of ways.

Thanks to the miracle of the web, you can do the same research. (You can also find addresses for the politically active rich and famous, but that is a task for another time.) I used PoliticalMoneyLine, clicked “employer/occupation lookup” on the left-hand side, and within minutes could scan the contributions made in this cycle by people who worked for “Citigroup.” Citigroup has about 250,000 employees, according to its annual report, but during this cycle there have been a mere 636 separate donations (and any particular person may have made several donations.) Those are hardly overwhelming participation numbers. A quick look at the list indicated that the great majority of donors were consistently partisan Democrats or Republicans.

What does this say about Citigroup? Just that some people who work there choose to participate in politics by giving money to candidates they support. To reiterate–Citigroup itself gave nary a cent. In an era where political involvement continues to wane, it would be more appropriate to laud donors for stepping up with their billfolds than distorting their involvement into some anti-corporate spin. Finally, as the rules governing campaign become more complex, reporters who cover this area need to exercise judgment, and perhaps skepticism, when they report findings from interested groups.

Allison Hayward is counsel to Federal Election Commission Chairman Bradley A. Smith. The views in the article are her own, and nothing written here necessarily reflects the official position of the FEC or Chairman Smith.

Allison R. Hayward — Nina Owcharenko is a senior policy analyst for health care at the Heritage Foundation's Center for Health Policy Studies.

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