Companies Start to Lift Veil on Political Spending

Rising oil prices have benefited producers of other forms of power as well, and Big Wind is among the sectors of the energy industry using some of their profits for self-promotion.
Rising oil prices have benefited producers of other forms of power as well, and Big Wind is among the sectors of the energy industry using some of their profits for self-promotion. (By Rick Bowmer -- Associated Press)
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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ever wonder how much companies really spend to influence government through trade associations? Well, a few corporations are coming clean, or at least cleaner.

The Center for Political Accountability, a nonpartisan group that promotes corporate political disclosure, has been gradually persuading companies to disclose more about their political activities. As a result, a few mysteries have been solved.

In 2006, for example, Chevron, the oil company, paid the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Industry PAC (BIPAC) $250,000 each to educate voters. Such spending has traditionally been kept secret because laws do not require disclosure, even though it is an important element in the assault on Washington. Now, shareholder pressure has changed a few minds in corporate boardrooms.

Aetna, the insurance company, has disclosed that it paid trade associations $3.4 million in 2006, the latest year for which information is available. That included $950,000 to America's Health Insurance Plans, $925,000 to the Coalition for Affordable Quality Healthcare, $226,500 to the Business Roundtable and $100,000 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In other words, a ton of dough.

But even with these disclosures, it's still sometimes hard to know how much associations actually receive.

Hewlett-Packard, for instance, lists only the amount of its dues that trade associations put toward lobbying and political activities. The computer maker recently said that it paid the Information Technology Industry Council $73,060. But that is probably a fraction of the company's full payments to those groups.

A survey earlier this year of 255 corporate directors commissioned by the foundation-backed center revealed that directors knew very little about disclosure laws and were not much involved in political advocacy.

In other words, boards may be willing to reveal more but they still have a long way to go before their companies are forthright about political spending. "We're beginning to breach that wall," said Bruce F. Freed, the center's executive director. "But there's much more to do."

Bottom Feeders Win Again

The powerful farm lobby won many battles -- large and small -- in the $300 billion farm bill now pending in Congress. Here's one of the small ones.

The Catfish Farmers of America -- a group you may remember -- got its wish thanks in part to appropriations bigwig Thad Cochran, a Republican senator from the catfish-producing state of Mississippi. The legislation directs the Agriculture Department to inspect and grade farmed catfish, a procedure that will probably make it at least a little harder for catfish imports to grow.

At the same time, the rest of the food industry staved off a proposal from the House that would have required USDA inspections of all seafood. Instead, non-catfish fish will get voluntary grading on a plant-by-plant basis. Score that as a victory for the food lobby.

Gas Prices, and Ads, Rise

Voters are outraged at the high price of gasoline, and the oil industry has ramped up its advertising to protect itself from a backlash. The American Petroleum Institute, the chief oil and gas lobby, is spending tens of millions of dollars a year -- a huge sum for an issue-advertising campaign -- to deflect blame for spiraling prices and to urge Congress to allow more domestic drilling, not less, as many Democrats would prefer.

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