OP-ED: If GOP, Mitch McConnell really wants ‘woke’ corporations out of politics, here’s how

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks during a hearing before Senate Rules and Administration Committee at Russell Senate Office Building March 24, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The committee held a hearing to examine S.1, The For The People Act. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

Some advice for any young readers out there still looking for their soulmate: Find a life partner who looks at you the way Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has looked at America’s CEOs, their three-martini lobbyists and their briefcases brimming with campaign cash. It’s the only green new deal the Kentuckian has ever cared about.

Arriving in Washington as a Senate backbencher in the mid-1980s, McConnell conceived an unusual but diabolically brilliant path to power: Championing the idea that allowing corporations and their billionaire investors to funnel six- and seven-figure donations to reelect his new colleagues was the ultimate form of “free speech.”

When McConnell lost a battle on the Senate floor in the early 2000s to stop the campaign finance reform bill known as McCain-Feingold, he took the radical step of filing a lawsuit and taking it all the way to the Supreme Court. The Kentucky senator lost that case, but he got everything he wanted in a later ruling in the Citizens United case. McConnell then rode a wave of Big Business contributions in the 2010s to cut corporate taxes to modern record-low levels and pack the judiciary with the most pro-business judges since the Gilded Age, as income inequality soared.

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All this time, McConnell waxed poetically about the First Amendment as if he were wearing a powdered wig and trying to portray James Madison in a one-man play or something. In 2012, addressing Democratic threats to rein in the rising abuses of the Citizens United age, McConnell told the American Enterprise Institute that — in viewing unlimited political spending as free speech — you are producing “a marketplace of ideas that you shouldn’t be afraid of.” He added: “There’s no question that what they” — Democrats — “want to do is intimidate people into shutting up, and believe me, if you give that power to the government they will do it selectively.”

Last week, McConnell, who’s never found a height of hypocrisy that he couldn’t scale, sounded utterly terrified by the marketplace of ideas, and he spoke openly of the government using its power to selectively intimidate people into shutting up.

'Just a game for him': What changed in just nine years? With their valuable brands under pressure from consumers in an increasingly diverse, progressive America, more corporations are taking stands on issues like LGBTQ rights, gun safety or now voting rights — often in opposition to McConnell’s reactionary Republican Party.

Suddenly, Moscow Mitch’s beloved Fortune 500 is “dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government.” He said that they “will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.” The minority leader in the 50-50 Senate didn’t say what those consequences could be — but others in the GOP have tried to strip Delta Air Lines of a tax break after it criticized Georgia’s new voter suppression law, or proposed ending Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption after it yanked its 2021 All-Star Game from the Peach State.

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How serious was McConnell? Not very. He was quick to add that he wasn’t talking about campaign contributions — still the lifeblood of the modern Republican Party as it stubbornly clings to political power while its core base of white male voters shrinks.

“It’s all just a game for him,” Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think tank and author of the book "The Business of America Is Lobbying," told me last week. Drutman and others have chronicled how business — blindsided by the expanded regulatory power of the government in the 1970s — mastered the art of lobbying and of using the obtuse rulebook of Capitol Hill to block legislation, and later to buy influence with unchecked donations.

But the nation’s social changes in the 21st century — and a political environment in which culture wars now seem to matter more than Economics 101 — have drastically altered the equation. Corporations competing for the best young talent are under pressure from their millennial and Gen Z employees for socially responsible business practices, and social media campaigns can seriously damage a brand. Limits on voting rights have been part of the Republican playbook since the 1990s, but today firms like Coca-Cola or Delta feel compelled to speak out.

Brink of change: But here’s the question raised by the new anticorporate fervor on the so-called populist, pro-Trump right: Is the new flap over what conservatives call “corporate cancel culture” going to bring momentum for actual measures that would restrain that massive growth of corporate power — which would mean undoing everything that McConnell has accomplished in 36-plus years?

Right now, Congress and the Biden administration seem on the brink of the biggest rollback of corporate power since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, even if the moves have support from only Democrats so far.

Pay a fair share of taxes. Along with the wholesale regulatory rollbacks that occurred under Donald Trump, low taxes has always been the endgame for the Chamber of Commerce crowd, even as studies show the extra cash boosted wealthy investors but didn’t lead toward high wages or broad economic gains. President Biden plans to restore some of that balance with his plan to raise the corporate tax rate from the current, recent-historical low of 21% to 28%, which would still be less than the rate had been for decades, before the 2017 Trump tax bill.

But many corporations still pay little or no income taxes at all, often through a shell game of shifting profits to overseas tax havens. There’s a pending bill from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon that aims to both raise the rate and eliminate the loopholes in a weak provision in the 2017 Trump bill supposedly meant to recapture these lost dollars. And the Biden administration has endorsed an even bolder — albeit harder to pull off — plan for a “global minimum tax” that would neutralize the use of tax havens through international cooperation.

Pass the For the People Act, or HR 1. The measure that was approved by the House earlier this year and is awaiting action by the Senate has been in the news lately, because the bill aims to expand citizens’ voting rights at a moment when so many GOP-led states are looking to curtail them. But the bill also includes provisions that would roll back corporate influence, including a taxpayer-funded 6-1 donor match of small, under-$200 contributions to federal candidates and disclosure rules aimed at identifying corporate “dark money” in elections. But lacking any Republican support, HR 1 may be dead in the water with the refusal of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to reform the filibuster, which now blocks it.

Reduce the influence of corporate lobbyists. “There’s a practical, how-Congress-does-its-business approach,” said Drutman, who has chronicled the rise of these K Street influencers. He said Capitol Hill could combat the modern success of business lobbying by expanding its staffs to bring in more policy experts, so that the people drafting bills are wonks looking to improve the country, as opposed to lawyers looking to pump up corporate profits.

The result of a true curbing-corporate-power agenda in Washington would be a boon for actual free speech — as it would make the government more responsive to the words of everyday people than to the dollars that flow from Wall Street or Silicon Valley. One shrewd analysis of the “corporate capture” of American government quotes the French economist Thomas Piketty: “If we are to regain control of capitalism, we must bet everything on democracy.” Good advice, but if you’re going to play this game of high-stakes poker, start with the most important rule of all: Mitch McConnell is always bluffing.

— Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.