In his 1906 State of the Union address, President Theodore Roosevelt called for a law “prohibiting all corporations from contributing to the campaign expenses of any party.” The rough-riding, trust-busting Republican was such an outspoken critic of concentrated corporate power that he wanted, in his words, to “prohibit in effective fashion all corporations from making contributions for any political purpose, directly or indirectly.”
It is easy to imagine how Roosevelt might have felt about modern day campaign finance, especially following the 2010 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The ruling extended First Amendment free speech rights to corporations and other associations, including unions and nonprofits, effectively allowing them to spend as much as they desire to support political candidates — as long as their support is independent of the campaigns themselves.
While Roosevelt abhorred the idea of corporations spending money — directly or indirectly — to steer the outcomes of the democratic process, he did not dispute the right of individuals “to contribute as they desire.” This raises an interesting question: When is a donor contributing money as an individual American and when is he or she spending corporate profits to support lawmakers who will craft legislation that benefits the corporation?
Since the Citizens United ruling, the answer to this question is: It does not matter. In his concurring opinion in support of granting First Amendment rights to corporations and other associations, the late conservative Associated Justice Antonin Scalia defined the unlimited political contributions of theses groups as “the speech of many individual Americans, who have associated in a common cause.”
His opinion continued, “The association of individuals in a business corporation is no different—or at least it cannot be denied the right to speak on the simplistic ground that it is not ‘an individual American.’”
No matter how you feel about the issue, today’s reality is that individual households can contribute unlimited amounts of money to further political causes, either as “individual Americans” or as heads of multi-billion-dollar hedge funds, casino empires, labor unions, or nonprofit corporations, seeking to influence politicians in ways that favor their interests.
Roosevelt might not have agreed with this blurring of the lines between individuals and corporations, but more than a century after his call to get corporate interests out of politics it is clear which side has won this debate.
Here are the top 10 largest donors over the past two years, where they directed their contributions and their business interests. These include individual contributions to federal candidates, parties, and/or political action committees (PACs) — groups organized privately to raise money for political campaigns.
24/7 Wall Street examined campaign-contribution data from the Center for Responsive Politics’ opensecrets.org website and researched the background of the individuals on the list to help illustrate their motives for making these contributions. Total contributions are for the current election cycle, defined as the period between Nov. 9, 2016 (the day after Election Day and start of the campaign season) and Oct. 15 (the most recent Federal Election Commission filing deadline).