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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Another election year, another record high for corporate spending on Washington’s initiatives

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

It flows onto our TV screens from Houston, Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

From Atlanta, New York City and Wichita.

It arrives in our mailboxes courtesy of Phillips 66, BP America and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.

From Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper.

It arrives here by the tens of millions, and it flows to consultants in Massachusetts, researchers in Pennsylvania, communications analysts in Michigan and advertising production companies in California.

It’s the seemingly bottomless well of corporate money, purchasing a seemingly endless firehose of political advertisements in initiative campaigns. Corporations are “speaking” louder than any other entity in this election – louder than any candidate or citizens committee – and it’s not even close.

A single gas and oil company, BP America, has spent more in this election than the Congressional campaigns of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Lisa Brown combined. The committee to which BP America contributed has raised more money than any single initiative committee in state history.

This money is braying at us, actually, shouting every day via television ads and mailers, and salting the atmosphere with arguments cloaked as public service announcements but meant to save corporations money.

The firehose is flowing the fastest just where you would expect: from gas and oil companies opposing Initiative 1631, which would establish pollution fees on greenhouse gases, and from soda pop companies supporting I-1634, which would prohibit local governments from taxing groceries.

Committees built almost entirely on corporate funding have spent about five times as much lobbying against those two initiatives as McMorris Rodgers and Brown have raised in their combined campaigns, which is the hardest-fought and most consequential congressional race here in decades.

Those two candidates have raised $10.6 million, according to the most recent filings, and it’s pretty close to evenly split between them. (Sen. Maria Cantwell has raised $11.5 million, dwarfing challenger Susan Hutchison’s $1.5 million.)

By comparison, BP America, the Houston-based division of the massive international oil and gas company based in London, gave $12.9 million to the No on Initiative 1631 committee, according to the most recent filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Phillips 66 has given $7.2 million to that committee. Andeaver, part of a network of refiners, has ponied up $6.1 million through a pair of companies. The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers gave a million, just slightly more than Valero Energy Corp., and Koch Industries.

Chevron, that cheapskate, gave a half-million.

All told, No on Initiative 1631 raised $31.3 million as of its most recent report in mid-October. PDC records dating back to 2008 show it is the single largest amount raised by an initiative committee in that time period, and a PDC official confirmed last week that it was a historic high, as well. (In 2013, however, two committees teamed up against an initiative that would have required labeling of genetically engineered foods with a total of $37 million from grocers, Monsanto, DuPont, PepsiCo, Nestlé …)

No on Initiative 1631 has outspent the committee formed to support the measure, Clean Air Clean Energy, more than 2-to-1. Clean Air Clean Energy has some big donors, to be sure, but nothing like BP America. Its top giver in the most recent PDC filings was the Nature Conservancy at $3.1 million. The League of Conservation Voters gave $1.4 million.

Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg each gave $1 million.

Big money, yes, but not gas big.

Not soda big.

The makers of sugar water are the primary funders of the second largest pot of initiative spending in this year’s election. Yes to Affordable Groceries had raised more than $20 million by the last reporting period, financing a series of ads that make it seem as though cities in Washington are all on the verge of taxing your lettuce and oatmeal.

Taxing lettuce and oatmeal would be a terrible idea, but this campaign is crying wolf – if there is any danger of any tax at the grocery store, it is for taxing soda, of course. Which you can tell by checking in with the corporations that are footing almost the entire bill for the firehose: Coca-Cola has given $10 million to Yes for Affordable Groceries, while PepsiCo has given $7.3 million and Keurig Dr Pepper has given $2.1 million.

This part of the election cycle can feel exhausting. The hammering repetition, the ubiquitous advertising, the media coverage, the loose attachment to the truth in every direction – the firehose is blasting away.

And so much of it flows not from citizens engaged in the clash of ideas, but corporations engaged in the bottomless politics of the bottom line.

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