February 16, 2013 in City

Vestal: Microsoft PAC backs broad slate

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The explosion of money – and particularly secret money – in politics has gotten a lot of attention.

Much of that attention has focused on groups and donors who tend to heavily support one side or the other. Super PACs and “outside contributors.” But there is another kind of political giver: organizations that apply a No Candidate Left Behind approach. Lots of large, mainstream corporations have political action committees that fit this bill; in Washington, our biggest one is Microsoft’s PAC, which spreads a lot of money to a lot of people on both sides of the aisle.

This isn’t money raised or controlled by the corporation; it’s made up of contributions from employees and others, and its spending is overseen by a board charged with reflecting the wide-ranging wishes of the donors. Contributions range from $5,000 – from both Bill and Melinda Gates, among others – to $200.

“Microsoft employees give at high rates compared to other corporations, partly because their incomes are higher and they’re more politically engaged, for whatever reason,” said James Thurber, a distinguished professor and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

One reason, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, was the 1998 antitrust investigation by the feds into Microsoft’s marketing of Windows. Before that, the company and its employees gave “virtually nothing” in terms of political contributions, the center said. But in the years since, it opened a Washington, D.C., lobbying office, formed a PAC and became one of the biggest donors in congressional and presidential races.

In the past several election cycles, Microsoft has given decidedly more money to Democrats than Republicans – 69 percent of its donations in 2012, and nearly four times more money to Barack Obama ($815,536) than to Mitt Romney ($213,438). But if you go back a few years, you see that the corporation gave twice as much to George W. Bush as Al Gore (though it also threw money Bill Bradley’s way).

Moreover, when you take a closer look at the long list of political donations Microsoft makes – at opensecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics – what you find are gifts to virtually everyone, in descending amounts roughly corresponding with a candidate’s viability. Not only did Obama and Romney pick up significant donations in the last election, but so did Jon Huntsman ($10,000), Gary Johnson ($3,450), Newt Gingrich ($3,250), Rick Santorum ($2,950), Herman Cain ($500), Rick Perry ($500) and poor Tim Pawlenty ($250).

Microsoft’s completist strategy is sometimes comical: In 2004, it gave $250 to Lyndon LaRouche’s candidacy for president. That wasn’t all that long after a publication run by LaRouche – whose long history of whackjob-ishness defies pigeonholing – had run a piece claiming the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were an inside job.

Why give Lyndon LaRouche money?

Microsoft isn’t saying. A spokeswoman for the company, after several days of inquiries, wrote, “This isn’t something Microsoft shares publicly,” and directed me to the company’s policies on political engagement, which, in a nutshell, say the company seeks to support “public policy issues that are core to our business.”

This support adds up. Microsoft’s PAC donated $4.6 million to candidates all around the country, PACs and other groups in 2011 and 2012. The corporation spent nearly $13 million in that period on lobbying, according to opensecrets.org. Between 1989 and 2012, it was the 29th-largest donor – at least of federally reported contributions – in the country, according to the organization’s “Heavy Hitters” list.

And yet Thurber – who says the unlimited spending and lack of transparency in politics are a huge problem overall – says the spending like Microsoft’s PAC isn’t such a concern. The spending is reported to the government, for one thing, and the wide variety of recipients reflects the broad interests of the contributors.

“Large corporations have that phenomenon,” he said. “It’s not primarily one party or the other. It’s not like the Koch brothers,” the conservative businessmen who spend millions on political activity, much of it through the unlimited channels of giving opened up by the Citizens United ruling and others.

If Microsoft’s PAC giving leans left, it displays another, more constant bias: toward winners. It gave Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers $12,500 and Democrat Rich Cowan $1,000. It gave Democrat Maria Cantwell $87,632 and Republican Michael Baumgartner $2,750. It gave more money to House Republican candidates than Democrats, and more to Senate Democratic candidates than Republicans. In red-state Arizona, it gave money to seven GOP candidates and two Democrats. In blue New York, it gave money to 13 Democratic candidates and five Republicans.

Thurber said that reflects the variety of donors in a huge company like Microsoft, with nearly 100,000 employees all over the world.

“Those aren’t corporate decisions,” he said. “They’re made by individuals who give the money.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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