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Corporations dodge questions on permanent donation bans

Campaign finance experts are increasingly skeptical that the companies vowing to freeze political contributions to Republicans who objected to the Electoral College results will carry out those pledges in a meaningful way. 

Fortune 500 companies like Amazon and Comcast announced a halt to donations in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol, decrying attacks on the democratic process and peaceful transition of power.

But many of the statements left wiggle room for corporate PACs to provide indirect financial support or resume direct support for the 147 Republicans who cast doubt on the legitimacy of President Biden's electoral victory.

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When contacted by The Hill, more than a half-dozen companies that took a public stand this month declined to comment on whether they would commit to a permanent ban on donations to the GOP lawmakers, despite earlier condemnations of the "direct assault" on the peaceful transition of power and the "appalling" violence at the Capitol.

“Honestly, I am dubious that it will last ... our current system is pay-to-play politics, and most companies are eager to pay the price of admission because the federal government has such power over their bottom line,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a group that advocates for campaign finance reform.

Experts say the real test will come as the 2022 midterm elections draw closer and as legislation impacting those companies starts moving through Congress.

“My first reaction is they’ll keep the ban on until their company CEO says, ‘We have a big problem in Congress, get it fixed.’ Something that affects their company in an adversarial way,” said David Rehr, a public policy and government professor at George Mason University. “It’s really easy now with no legislation, no action. We have a number of executive orders already.”

Most companies that announced a freeze on PAC contributions have not specified how long the pause will last and did not respond to requests from The Hill seeking clarification.

Comcast, which called the violence at the Capitol “appalling,” and its employees made more than $5 million in direct contributions to congressional candidates in the 2020 election cycle, with 34 percent of those donations going to Republicans.

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When asked why the behavior of the 147 lawmakers only merits a suspension and not a lifetime ban on contributions, a spokesperson said the company isn’t commenting beyond its original statement. The company also declined to say what would make it lift its suspension.

Cisco, which gave more than $1.4 million to congressional candidates in the last election cycle from its PAC and employees, with 14 percent of that going to Republicans, said this month it was halting contributions “to any of the 147 representatives and senators who attempted to prevent Congress from fulfilling its constitutional duty to certify a legitimate and fair presidential election.” The tech giant also said it would review potential contributions to other members.

When asked what it would need to see to lift the suspension, or if its review has led to halting other donations, a spokesperson said Cisco had nothing to add to its original statement.

Amazon, which gave 16 percent of its $5.7 million in PAC and employee donations to Republicans during the last election, said this month it has paused donations to lawmakers who voted to overturn the Electoral College results. When asked how long the pause will last, the tech giant did not respond.

In making their pronouncements after the attack on the Capitol, many companies said their suspensions applied to direct contributions toward the 147 Republicans, but with no mention of restrictions on donations to groups like the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and Republican National Committee (RNC) — all of which can provide financial support to GOP lawmakers and candidates of their choosing.

Amazon, Cisco and Comcast all contributed to those three GOP groups. None responded to questions about whether their freezes extend to the Republican committees.

“An issue that overhangs all of this is the apparent decision, accidental or purposive, on the part of the business community that they needed play a more active role in defense of the Constitution and our democratic principles — a departure from the old-school business commitment that asserted that a business fulfills its societal obligation by just paying taxes and providing jobs,” said Steven Billet, a PAC expert at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

He said the spotlight on the Capitol attack isn’t likely to dim anytime soon, making it harder for any companies to quietly resume their PAC donations to certain GOP lawmakers.

“The profile of this issue is more likely to be sustained for some time. We will be reminded of the insurrection continuously as the trials take place and as Democrats remind everyone that the riot was a Trump-initiated, Republican-supported deal,” Billet added.

Voters will get their first glimpse at whether these companies followed through on their pledges when Federal Election Commission reports are made public on Jan. 31. Periodic disclosures will allow watchdog groups to keep tabs going forward.

“The key thing here is that people have very short memories, and I suspect that once we get through this transitional phase that we'll see companies start to resume donations. Companies really want to have a seat at the table, and they want to have positive relationships with political leaders and so there's a big incentive to make contributions,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

“The other piece is that this story’s in the news today, but generally companies don't get enormous scrutiny for the contributions they make. I think we'll see companies get back to making contributions because the upside of having positive relationships is significant and the downside isn’t that scary for most firms,” Calkins added.

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One company contacted by The Hill indicated it might make its donation pause permanent.

Dell, which gave nearly $1.9 million total to congressional candidates from its PAC and employees, and nearly 27 percent of that to Republicans, told The Hill it has “no plans to revisit our decision to suspend contributions to members of Congress whose statements and activities during the post-election period are not in line with Dell’s principles.”

But the company spokesperson did not respond to a question about whether the pause extended to groups like the RNC, NRSC and NRCC. The company gave $215,000 in the last cycle to the NRSC, whose chairman, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), objected to the electoral votes from Pennsylvania.

Few companies specified a timeline for their pause on donations. Walt Disney Co. said it would lift its freeze after a year, but a spokesperson did not respond to a question about why that time period was chosen and why it was not making the ban permanent for lawmakers who participated in “a direct assault on one of our country’s most revered tenets: the peaceful transition of power."

American Express and Nike did not respond to questions about how long they would halt donations. 

Other companies like Citibank, Target, UPS, Kroger and Facebook chose to freeze political contributions to Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike while they conducted reviews.

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When asked why they paused donations for everyone, including Democrats and Republican lawmakers who didn’t vote to overturn the Electoral College results, none of the companies responded.

PAC contributions typically slow immediately following an election and at the beginning of the year. Some companies have indicated they usually don’t make contributions in the first quarter of a year anyway, making a public pause more a reflection of their standard operating procedure.

“It is routine for corporate and association PACs to undergo a thorough review process at the beginning of each election cycle to evaluate and formalize their contribution criteria,” said Kristin Brackemyre, director of PAC and government relations at the nonpartisan Public Affairs Council.

“The Capitol insurrection and objections to electoral certification is certainly a unique and troubling case, but corporate PACs are consistently examining behavior or actions, small or large, that may conflict with the company’s values.”