Despite Citizens United, Unions Outspend Corporations on Politics

When the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling provided corporations with more opportunity to contribute to political campaigns, the anti-business crowd was quite angry. As far as they were concerned, the purity of American democracy had been compromised. It seems, however, that may have been a bit of an overreaction. So far, corporations aren't leading the way in campaign contributions. In fact, their spending isn't even close to that of the unions.

The Washington Post reports:

So far this year, $24.7 million in independent spending has been reported to the Federal Election Commission, campaign filings show. Unions have spent $9.7 million (or 39 percent of the total), compared with $6.4 million (26 percent) spent by individuals and $3.4 million spent by corporations.

That's right: unions are outspending corporations nearly three-to-one. Even individuals have spent nearly double what corporations have. The only surprising thing about these figures would be if anyone finds them surprising.

Corporations certainly have political interests, but they aren't overtly political organizations like unions. Unions collect dues for the expressed purpose of pushing the legal discourse towards workers' interests. Corporations may have deeper pockets on a whole, but they generally care a lot more about using their money to please share shareholders than politicians.

To be sure, those two goals often go hand-in-hand. That's why businesses have some interest in how the government makes laws and spends taxpayer money. If you ask General Electric CEO Jeffery Immelt, for example, he'll be the first to tell you how important it is for corporations to understand the political game. But ultimately, businesses only view politics as one of many means to their end, which is profit. For unions, however, politics is the primary means to their end.

As explained here, the Citizens United ruling might matter more on the regional level. In elections and races where local interests are paramount, you may now see small businesses spend more, since unions will be focused on the big races. The statistics above don't reflect non-federal spending, so the proportions could be different. Before, small businesses were largely kept out of the lobbying game, since they could only contribute to a political action committee, which generally provided them little voice on regional issues.

We'll see how the federal numbers change once the general election cycle hits. The verdict above isn't final. But it's likely an early indicator that unions will outspend corporations.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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