The companies that helped persuade Congress to pass legislation expanding trade with China pumped $113.1 million into the U.S. political system in the 18 months before the House approved the measure, according to a new report.
It was the most expensive campaign corporate America has waged on a trade vote, industry lobbyists concede. But the businesses say good arguments and savvy organization carried the day, not cash.
And they laugh at the figures presented in the report by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, an organization that has fought every free-trade initiative since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
“Somebody must have put all this money in a Swiss bank account,” scoffed Christopher Padilla, a spokesman for the Business Coalition for U.S.-China Trade. “We never saw it.”
The China-trade bill, which a White House official said President Clinton hopes to sign this week, passed the House in May by a decisive 237-197 vote after months of tough lobbying on both sides. Opponents, like organized labor, human rights organizations and some national-security groups, did not put up a fight in the Senate, which approved the legislation last month 85-13.
The legislation rode to victory despite opinion polls that showed a majority of the public at best skeptical about the China-trade agreement, just as it remains unconvinced that unrestricted free trade is in the nation’s best interest. And Public Citizen has a simple answer as to why.
“[M]uch of Congress was so well marinated in corporate cash that substance no longer mattered,” the report states.
Public Citizen, which derived the numbers from publicly available documents and its own calculations, cast its net widely, labeling virtually every dollar that the private sector injected into the political process as a dollar aimed at the trade bill. More than half the total, $68.2 million, is derived from campaign contributions to both parties made by members of the Business Roundtable, a group of roughly 200 of the nation’s largest corporations.
Industry contributions dwarfed those made by organized labor, which put $31 million into mostly Democratic campaign coffers before the House vote in May, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Another $31.1 million of the companies’ money went into lobbying, while the rest financed advertising around the country in support of the China-trade bill, Public Citizen concluded.
Business lobbyists ridiculed the notion that the campaign contributions were linked to the trade bill, especially during an election year in which members of Congress are raising money at a furious pace.
“These donations were going to be made regardless of whether we had a China vote this year,” Mr. Padilla said.
Lobbyists also argue that the role of money is frequently overrated as a way to get things done in Washington, pointing out that they spent millions of dollars in 1997 as part of an unsuccessful effort to reauthorize the president’s special trade-negotiating authority.
What made the difference this year was “the level of commitment that we demonstrated, from the CEOs to the factory workers,” said Bill Lane, a lobbyist for equipment manufacturer Caterpillar.
Much of Public Citizen’s report dwells on the close links that business groups made between a “yes” vote for the China bill and campaign contributions for members of the House. But the watchdog group stopped short of charging that individual members directly swapped their votes for money.
Even business lobbyists concede that, in the months immediately preceding the House vote on the China bill, legislators were aggressively raising money from companies with a stake in the outcome.
For example, it points out that Rep. Max Sandlin, Texas Democrat, was the beneficiary of a fund-raiser hosted by Calman Cohen, who heads a major business group that backed the trade legislation. Mr. Sandlin “had been widely expected to vote against [the bill], given his working-class district and close labor ties,” Public Citizen wrote.
Danielle Allen, a spokesman for Mr. Sandlin, said Public Citizen is “completely erroneous” in drawing a link between the fund-raiser and his vote for the bill. Mr. Sandlin has supported other free-trade initiatives and still enjoys the support of organized labor.
“It wasn’t as though he had a fund-raiser for him and he changed his vote,” she said.
Mr. Cohen said that he has held fund-raisers for both Republicans and Democrats for the past decade and that he has supported members who appreciate the importance of free trade, without linking contributions to specific votes.
“House members only have a two-year cycle,” Mr. Cohen said. “There is no perfect time to do this.”
Holding a fund-raiser after a critical vote likely would draw the accusations of a payoff, and “raises just as many questions from the critics,” he added.