Goldman Sachs’ Citizens United Vow

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Corporations have begun stepping off the sidelines to dump cash into campaign ads, courtesy of the new election spending rules under Citizens United. But there are also signs that some of the biggest potential spenders have decided to pass on the opportunity to join the campaign finance free-for-all. Goldman Sachs has taken the unusual step of pledging not to spend any money on the kinds of campaign ad spending that’s now allowed under the controversial Supreme Court ruling. From the New York Times:

The investment bank quietly revised its statement on political activities on its Web site last week…“Goldman Sachs also does not spend corporate funds directly on electioneering communications,” the firm said in its statement. Those communications are generally interpreted to mean advertisements on radio and television broadcasts in the run-up to an election.

The decision came after weeks of talks with the New York City public advocate, Bill de Blasio, who has lobbied for greater transparency from companies seeking to sway the outcome of elections…

“This could be one of those moments that determines whether we are going to have a political system literally dominated by corporate money, or some ability by the people at the grass roots to determine the outcome of elections,” Mr. de Blasio said.

Goldman Sachs can still spend money in other ways to influence elections and legislation. But it’s still a surprising move, given that the pressure to curb Citizens United election spending is mostly coming from good-government watchdogs and progressive groups like MoveOn, which just called for its supporters to boycott Target in light of the retailer’s campaign backing for a right-wing GOP candidate in Minnesota.

But the announcement also suggests that corporations could be aware of the potential downside of pouring money into races to advocate directly for or against a particular candidate. As I explained yesterday, the public backlash that Target and Best Buy have experienced from gay activists in Minnesota demonstrates the risks that corporations could run by directly supporting candidates through campaign ad buys. Given the tremendous beating that its public image has taken in the wake of the financial crisis, Goldman Sachs may have decided that wading into campaigns and elections isn’t worth the risk.

The catch, though, is that corporations still have a host of ways to conceal their election spending—by giving money to third-party groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors, for instance. So Goldman and other corporations could still funnel money into these groups to take advantage of Citizens United—the public just has no way of knowing.

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