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Corporate Political Spenders Get Lucrative Payouts

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What do the world’s largest companies get in return for the billions they spend on federal elections and lobbying?

An astounding return on investment, according to a new report by the Sunlight Foundation.

Between 2007 and 2012, 200 of America’s most politically active for-profit corporations—what Sunlight calls the Fixed Fortune 200—spent a combined total of $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions. In return, these corporations received $4.4 trillion in federal business and support. In other words, for every $1 the Fixed Fortune 200 spent on political influence and access, they got $760 from the government.

Many of the top 200 corporate political spenders are also some of the largest federal contractors. Sunlight found that the Fixed Fortune 200 won $1 trillion of the $3 trillion in contracts awarded during that six-year period. Almost two-thirds of that total went to just five companies. The five largest federal contractors—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman—received $629.8 billion in contracts and $480 million in other federal support, and spent $409.2 million on lobbying and campaign contributions, which means they received $1,540 from the government for every dollar they spent influencing the government. Of the large federal contractors in the list, Bechtel stands out for having the highest rate of return: more than $6,000 in taxpayer funds for every dollar spent.

These findings are not surprising to the Project On Government Oversight. Ten years ago, we published The Politics of Contracting, which found that the top 20 federal contractors spent an average of 8 cents on lobbying and campaign contributions for every $100 in contracts they received—that’s $1,250 in contracts for every dollar spent. Our report also examined the effect of the revolving door, identifying 291 instances involving 224 former high-ranking government officials who became lobbyists for those 20 contractors or worked for them as board members or executives.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Citizens United that corporate spending on the political process does not “give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” and that “the appearance of influence or access…will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” This holding, however, flies in the face of everyday observation and simple data analysis. The “pay-to-play” system POGO documented in 2004 still blights the political process. For a relatively modest investment in that process, some corporations are still reaping enormous returns.

By: Neil Gordon
Investigator, POGO

Neil Gordon, Investigator Neil Gordon is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Neil investigates and maintains POGO's Federal Contractor Misconduct Database.

Topics: Contract Oversight

Related Content: Lobbying

Authors: Neil Gordon

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