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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Oil and Gas Companies: Citizens Buying Government

According to the Huffington Post, “corporate campaign contributions have historically been split among incumbents of both political parties, with a decided advantage for whichever controls Congress and the White House.” From 2008 to 2012, however, “companies in some major industries that [saw] a threat from federal regulations—most notably the energy sector—[appeared] to have deepened bonds with the Republican Party, with which they share increasingly indistinguishable goals.” One implication is that the party would block regulations to protect the regulated even at the expense of the public safety.

For example, the disproportionate donations by the oil and gas industry to the Republican Party could explain why Republicans in Congress argued for deregulation of deepwater oil drilling even in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Financial contributions can explain why the obvious reaction for greater regulation was ignored by those members of Congress. In other words, financial incentive can create blindspots or lapses that are seemingly inexplicable.

Besides the compromised public safety, the financial largess of an industry going predominantly to one party can distort the political “playing board” such that the competition between parties (and between incumbents and challengers) is compromised or distorted. In other words, baleful effects on democracy itself may be part of the mix.

Lastly, the “right” of companies to make political contributions, as if they were “corporate citizens,” can be challenged on the basis that a company is an association rather than a citizen. Lloyd Avram, a spokesman for Chevron, claimed in a written statement that "Chevron exercises its fundamental right and responsibility to participate in the political process. We make political contributions where permitted by law and, consistent with Company policy, to support political candidates, political organizations and ballot measures committed to economic development, free enterprise and good government." Rather than being a fundamental right and responsibility for a company to participate in the political process, it may be an overreach.

On one level, the “fundamental right and responsibility” evinces anthropomorphism: the projecting of human qualities onto non-human entities. Humans exercise their rights of citizenship. It does not necessarily follow that what holds for human beings also applies to our associations themselves. Even though a company consists of people, the entity itself is an organization with its distinct interests. It is not necessarily so that those interests have the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by citizens. To the extent that the interests between a company and its members do not diverge, the citizens in the company have a multiplied influence that other citizens do not have. The principle of fairness is thus relevant too.

In short, giving corporations the fundamental rights and responsibilities of (human) citizens opens the political system up to significant risks. In being able to buy a political party thereby made hegemonic, large concentrations of private capital can effectively protect their interests in staving off regulation at the expense of the public interest. In effect, one faction is able to buy a government. Beyond the conflict of interest in having the regulated be in a position to use its public agents to obviate unwanted regulation and the democracy deficit in the polity as a whole, the attribution of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship on companies evinces a fallacy or category mistake caused, most likely, by the usual suspect of corporate political contributions. Unlike corporations, (human) citizens don't buy themselves citizenship. The concept naturally applies to human beings rather than to our associations. That we have freedom of association does not somehow turn our associations into citizens themselves.


Dan Froomkin, “Corporate Campaign Contributions Show Some Industries Giving Up Appearance of Bipartisanship,” The Huffington Post, April 26, 2012.