House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer update reporters on Democratic efforts to pass President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda at the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Big Business PACs Gave Millions to Dem Party as Biden Agenda Collapsed

by
in Sludge
on February 10, 2022

The last week of October and the first week of November were crucial for the Democratic agenda in Congress. The bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF) and the Build Back Better Act (BBB) were being developed in tandem, and for months House progressives insisted the bills remain linked, so the BIF’s spending in areas like roads and bridges would only pass the House alongside a commitment that the Senate would pass the BBB’s larger package of social programs and climate resilience measures. 

The major bills were still linked as of Wednesday, Oct. 27, Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters. But after a couple of false starts, by Friday, Nov. 5, progressives had agreed to delink the bills and pass the BIF, on assurances from the White House that holdout Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) would vote for the BBB. The BIF passed 228-206, and was signed into law a week later. The BBB, delayed by ostensible budget score concerns of conservative House Democrats, made it through the House on Nov. 19 by 220-213, but promptly stalled in the Senate, where the perceived agreement between Biden and Manchin collapsed, resulting a month later in a jilted White House statement.

Senate Democrats are now attempting to approach the BBB piecemeal in the months before the midterm elections devour attention on Capitol Hill. The package’s investments in child care, climate, and prescription drug pricing reforms may not have another opportunity to become law for many years ahead, if Republicans retake the House, Senate, or both in November. With Democrats’ legislative expectations slashed in this Congress, Hill observers wondered, could progressives have held out and gotten the BBB across the finish line—especially given Manchin’s financial interest in passing the BIF? 

In a New Yorker interview on Dec. 21, writer Isaac Chotiner drew out the progressive leader on the process and strategy of the White House and Speaker Pelosi insisting on delinking the two. 

“I think the White House made a mistake in splitting the two bills apart, and I think that’s where a lot of this started. We split them apart, and we allowed the negotiations to be all around the infrastructure bill with really no attention to eighty-five per cent of the President’s agenda in the Build Back Better Act. I think that, when the Senate passed infrastructure without a commitment, I think that was probably at the White House’s urging, but I don’t think that should have happened, either.”

– Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)

Democrats were under pressure to pass the BIF first from top lobbying groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose members benefited from provisions in the more modest spending package and who opposed major elements of the BBB, especially its proposed increase in corporate tax rates. The Chamber was joined in its pressure campaign by the Business Roundtable (BRT), an association of over 200 CEOs from large companies, which similarly lobbied for the BIF and launched what it called “a significant, multifaceted campaign” to stop the BBB’s tax hikes. The BRT dished out $29.1 million on lobbying last year, a sharp rise over the nearly $17 million it spent on lobbying in 2020. While the Chamber does not publicly disclose its membership, BRT members frequently appear in the media to tout their group’s commitments to social responsibility. 

The PACs of Business Roundtable members’ companies like Boeing, Centene, Pfizer, and Walmart contributed a combined over $2.75 million to the DCCC last year, according to a Sludge review of FEC data from the nonprofit Code for Democracy. The PACs of BRT members’ companies also gave nearly $2.5 million to the DSCC in 2021, and $75,000 to the DNC. Some of the donations came as Democrats were wrestling over the sequencing of votes on the BIF and BBB—for example, on Oct. 8, the PAC of PricewaterhouseCoopers donated $15,000 to the DCCC, and on Oct. 20 the PAC of NextEra Energy donated $45,000. The BRT does not itself spend very much in PAC contributions, but donations from its big business members could have helped BRT lobbyists with access in influencing the willingness of House Democrats to delink the bills.

Executives and employees of Business Roundtable members’ companies gave millions of dollars more to Democratic Party groups last year, with some donations coming in the fourth quarter while BRT lobbyists worked to pass the BIF first and kill the BBB:

  • Brent Layton, president and COO of healthcare company Centene, and Sarah London, vice chairman, each donated $10,000 to the DCCC on Oct. 4. 
  • Brad Smith, vice chairman and president of Microsoft, donated $10,000 to the DCCC on Oct. 18. 
  • Amanda Marks, an executive at Apple, contributed $10,000 to the DSCC on Oct. 18. 
  • Billionaire businessman John Sall, co-founder of software company SAS Institute, gave $36,500 to the DCCC the day after the BIF was passed. He gave the same amount to the DSCC and DNC in early November. 
  • Greg A. Adams, CEO of healthcare company Kaiser Permanente, contributed $20,000 to the DSCC on Oct. 20. 
  • John McCormick, the co-head of Blackstone Group’s $81 billion hedge fund unit, gave $10,000 to the DSCC on Nov. 3. 
  • Edsel Ford II, who recently retired from the board of Ford Motor Company, gave $10,000 to the DSCC on Nov. 22. 

The PACs of BRT member companies donated nearly the same amount to Republican Party groups in 2021: the NRCC received nearly $2.9 million, while the NRSC received nearly $2.2 million and the RNC took in $90,000, according to Sludge’s review. 

Employees of the large companies in the Business Roundtable similarly sent millions of dollars in donations to Republican Party groups last year. At the fore, billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of private equity firm Blackstone Group and a prominent Trump ally, contributed a total of $365,000 to RNC fundraising committees on Oct. 29. 

Together, BRT member company PACs donated over $10.44 million to six Democratic and Republican Party groups in 2021, Sludge found by reviewing data from Code for Democracy.

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