Monday, October 11, 2010

Money Laundering for Foreign Political Money

I wrote recently about the need for money laundering for corporate political spending, so that corporations can buy elections in secret. I wasn’t specifically thinking of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when I wrote that, but Think Progress says that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may have become the largest political money laundering operation — and that much of its money is coming from overseas.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has morphed in recent years from a pro-business lobbying organization to essentially a political action committee aligned with the cultural-overthrow elements of the Republican Party. Its campaign to abolish trade unions continues, but mostly, it supports candidates who want to ban abortion and hip-hop and drive gays out of the workplace. At the same time, it has greatly expanded its fund-raising overseas, news that comes as a surprise to me, but which the organization itself has apparently confirmed. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that none of the foreign money goes to its U.S. political operations, but it is hard to see where else the U.S. Chamber of Commerce might be spending the money, now that it is not much more than a Republican political organization.

Think Progress worries that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s political money-laundering might be illegal, but I believe it is misreading this year’s Supreme Court decision, which throws the doors open for corporate spending on U.S. politics. Hardly any corporations belong purely to one country, so the decision, in not specifically separating corporations with mostly U.S. operations from ones operating elsewhere, or even owned by foreign governments, is intended to elevate all corporations to the same privilege of political speech enjoyed by U.S. residents or citizens. This means that everything the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and similar organizations are doing is legal under current law. The one possible omission could be if a political money-laundering organization has neglected to register as a foreign lobbyist, but that is a formality easily completed with a single sheet of paper.

If multinational corporations and foreign governments want to try to buy this year’s elections, they will not be working mainly through a high-profile organization such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which by all accounts is spending less than $1 billion on advertisements for Republican candidates this year. The more likely channel for political money-laundering will be through little-known, fly-by-night organizations run by freelance political operatives and advertising executives. These organizations have no public presence (aside from their advertising budgets) and may vacate their leased offices the day after the election. There must be hundreds of these political front organizations, each capable of laundering corporate political money in the billions.

Multinational corporations spend billions per day on advertising to influence decisions by U.S. consumers. Now that they are free to spend unlimited amounts on political issues, a small part of this flood of money is being directed toward the decisions that voters make — and next month’s elections will be affected in ways that no one could predict at this point.