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Jessica Levinson Headshot

Charitable Giving: A Path Towards Corruption?

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Since its founding, our country has struggled with how to properly limit the negative influences of money over politics. For more than one hundred years, we've trained our eyes to the potential evils posed by corporate spending in the political marketplace. Some of our first campaign finance laws focused on prohibiting corporations from giving directly to candidates.

Simple enough, right? We prohibit corporate contributions to federal candidates and we need not worry about the ability of these government-created entities, designed to amass money in the economic marketplace, to unduly influence the political marketplace. Wrong.

There are still a myriad of ways for corporations to flex their economic prowess in electoral campaigns. Thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, corporations can tap into their general treasury funds to spend unlimited amounts on so-called electioneering communications--advertisements which clearly identify a candidate, but which are not made in coordination with a candidate.

But wait, there's more. As has recently come to light, corporations also give to office holders' charitable foundations and favorite charities. Officeholders or their families have aided in the creation or running of more than twenty-four charities that regularly accept donations from corporations. These same corporations often ask these same officials to enact favorable laws and policies.

Corporate contributions to a lawmaker's charity are currently unlimited. The question is, is there anything wrong with that? Are corporations just trying to be good corporate citizens, promoting good causes during a time when many charitable foundations are stretched to the breaking point? Or are these corporations trying to curry favor with politicians? Put another way, is a charitable contribution merely a way to gain access to and influence an elected official? And what about the politicians who founded these charities, should they be celebrated for bringing money and attention to worthwhile causes? Or should these politicians be scrutinized for being able to run seemingly endless campaigns thanks to the corporate dollars flowing to their organizations?

And the answer is....likely all of the above. It is up to us to determine whether this giving goes too far. Is it to the detriment of a healthy and functioning democracy or it is necessary to support important charitable interests? In order to properly make this determination, and to deter the more sinister transactions, disclosure is key.

Corporations are not inherently evil. They are endowed with many state-created benefits--limited liability, favorable tax treatment, endless life--so that they can be successful in the economic marketplace. This is vitally important. Corporations help to drive our economy, in part by creating products we use and employing millions of workers. This is surely a time to promote job growth and charitable giving.

It is now the time to ask what we want to do about corporations' donations to officeholders' foundations and officeholders' favorite charities. The first step towards answering that question is effectively disclosing information concerning who is giving, how much they are giving, to which foundations are they giving, and when are they giving.