Special Interests National Convention

While the speeches of the Democratic and Republican conventions have been dominating traditional news and social media, behind all the pageantry a slew of special interests are pulling the strings.

Photo courtesy of IIP Photo Archive/Flickr under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.
Photo courtesy of IIP Photo Archive/Flickr under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

The conventions are yet another moment to highlight what is becoming an increasingly more talked- about campaign issue: special interests’ influence in politics. This year’s conventions are expected to continue to shatter spending records. The Democratic National Convention is projected to cost $65 million and the Republican National Convention is expected to cost even more, with a price tag coming in around $71 million.

Since Congress repealed public financing of conventions in 2014, with the exception of $50 million provided by Congress for each convention’s security expenses, the rest of the money will come from special interests including corporations, unions, and lobbyists looking to gain favor with the politicians attending the conventions.

This special interest money enters the equation through “host committees,” which aren’t considered political entities and therefore do not need to disclose where their unlimited contributions come from. These undisclosed special interest dollars fund events and parties surrounding the conventions.

The presence of undisclosed special interest dollars at the conventions is problematic because it makes it impossible for the public to know whether the voices they hear at the conventions really represent the candidates or whether they represent the interests of those funding the events.

The public is becoming increasingly frustrated with a system that is rigged in favor of the super wealthy and special interests, and the conventions are another moment to draw attention to the corporate money flooding into the American political process. Polls show that two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with the outsized influence of corporations in America and 88% of Democratic and Republican primary voters think that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission should require public corporations to disclose their political spending.

Facing increased frustration, some may wonder how they can participate in changing the system. One unexpected way is through their retirement investments. Americans who invest their retirement savings with major mutual fund companies are ultimately empowering major corporations who meddle in politics.

Let’s break down how this happens.

When you contribute money to your retirement account with Vanguard, for example, Vanguard then takes your money and invests it in major corporations on the stock market. Those major corporations then turn around and spend money influencing elections and policy implementation. This spending is not required to be disclosed to the general public or the corporations’ shareholders.

Shareholders at major corporations have been asking the corporations to disclose their political spending for years. Unfortunately, those shareholder proposals rarely receive majority support because the biggest mutual fund companies, like Vanguard, can own 5 percent or more of these corporations and they tend to vote against increased transparency.

Five percent may not sound like a lot, but in actuality it translates to significant voting power in corporate elections where the fates of shareholder proposals on transparency are decided. Here’s where the average American saving for retirement comes in. Americans who invest their retirement savings with major mutual fund companies like Vanguard or BlackRock should tell the companies to support political spending disclosure at the corporations where their retirement dollars are invested.

The conventions are another instance where undisclosed political contributions are running rampant and Americans don’t know whose voices they are really hearing. Until the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issues a rule requiring all public companies to disclose political spending, mutual fund companies can and should represent the 401Ks and other investment accounts entrusted to them, and play a pivotal role in supporting disclosure. In turn, Americans who trust major mutual fund companies with their retirement savings should tell the companies to support disclosure whenever it comes up. Transparency is good for investors and good for our democracy.

Rachel Curley is the Democracy Associate at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. Follow more of her work at Corporate Reform Coalition