The downsides to secret donations

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: It's a couple of weeks yet 'til Election Day, which means it's a couple of weeks yet 'til we'll know the exact impact of last spring's Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance. The one that said companies and unions can spend as much as they want on whatever they want.

That ruling's generally thought to have been to businesses' advantage. Commentator Robert Reich says it's not necessarily so.


Robert Reich: Businesses should be worried about the hundreds of millions of secret dollars now going into political campaigns.

It's one thing when you know what your competitors are doing politically because they have to disclose it. You can then neutralize their donations by at least matching them, or doing them one better.

But when you don't know what they're up to, you're in trouble.

What if your competitors' money gets some judges elected? You could end up more vulnerable to antitrust claims from a competitor, or lawsuits alleging patent infringement, or charges you interfered in a contractual relationship.

What if your competitors get a governor elected? You could lose a state contract that's quietly transferred to one of them, or lose out to them on battles over eminent domain or rights to air or water, or on the benefits of where a new highway's to be constructed.

It could be even worse if your competitors get members of Congress elected. They could end up with tax breaks that are far more valuable to them than to you. Or subsidies or earmarks that improve their competitive position at your expense.

Of course, political secrecy puts your competitors in the same boat. They don't know who you're supporting or by how much, so they have no way to counter what you're doing politically.

The result is you and they have to spend even more.

This is exactly what the lobbyists, political operatives, and media buyers behind the secrecy want. It gives them more power to extort your company's money by saying, in effect, if you don't pay up, you'll be at a competitive disadvantage.

In other words, secret corporate donations are not only bad for democracy, they're bad for business. They only intensify the competitive arms race in corporate political donations that's been escalating for years.

It's a zero-sum game that helps no one -- not you, not your competitors, not even politicians, who just have to raise even more money. The only winners are the intermediaries, who make out like bandits.

Ryssdal: Robert Reich was Secretary of Labor for President Clinton. His new book is called "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future."

Next week in his regular spot, David Frum will be here. Take a second to send along your thoughts.

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