Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley Has Stopped Taking Corporate PAC Cash

Apr 17, 2019
Originally published on April 18, 2019 4:14 am

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley has quietly become the first member of the state’s current congressional delegation to stop taking money from corporate political action committees.

The Democratic senator confirmed in an interview with OPB that he decided early last fall not to take this source of campaign cash anymore.

“I felt, in the conversation about how to restore our democracy,” he said, “that it was important for me to recognize and symbolically take this step.”

Business-oriented political action committees gave Merkley about $1.2 million for his 2014 re-election campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending. All told, Merkley raised about $12 million for that race.

The idea of rejecting corporate PAC money has increasingly become popular among Democrats seeking seats in Congress — or the presidency.

Last year, nearly three dozen Democrats won election to Congress while highlighting their refusal to take money from corporate PACs. And all of the major Democratic candidates for president have pledged not to accept this source of money.

Several groups seeking to reduce the influence of big money in politics have been urging candidates to take this step.

“Most politicians do take corporate PAC money,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, communications director for End Citizens United. “So when someone says I’m not going to take corporate PAC money, I think that sends a really powerful message to voters about whose side they’re going to be on.”

Burgwinkle’s group, which is itself organized as a political action committee, is seeking to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. That ruling helped open the door to direct spending by corporations in political advertising.

Corporations — and labor unions — still cannot give directly to presidential or congressional candidates. But business executives, union members and others can donate to political action committees that are allowed to give up to $5,000 per election to candidates.

Merkley decided to reject corporate PAC money while he was also considering running for the presidency. He said that talking to people around the country “probably sharpened my sensitivity to the issue.”

But mostly, he said, “it just feels right” not to take corporate PAC money, although he said it was only a small step in reducing the political influence of powerful corporations. He said he does continue to take PAC contributions from unions and a variety of other interest groups. 

So far, Merkley is the only one in Oregon’s seven-member congressional delegation — six of whom are Democrats — to take this step. All of them are well-entrenched incumbents who hold senior positions on committees and are accustomed to raising money from a wide variety of PACs.

For example, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee now that Democrats have seized control of the House. His latest disclosure report — covering the first three months of the year — shows about half of the nearly $320,000 he raised came from corporate political action committees. Many represent transportation interests — such as Delta Airlines and Union Pacific — and several are prominent in Oregon, including Nike and Intel.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., is a member of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. His donors — ranging from T-Mobile to pharmaceutical manufacturers — include interests affected by the committee’s work on such issues as health care, energy and telecommunications.

About 60% of the $185,000 that Schrader raised came from business PACs, according to his report filed with the Federal Election Commission.

A DeFazio aide referred questions to his campaign manager, who could not be reached for comment.  Schrader also could not be reached for reaction.

Willie Smith, an aide to Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, said the congressman has always said “that if people want to help us, it doesn’t influence how I vote.”

Blumenauer became chairman of a trade subcommittee this year but did relatively little fundraising in the first quarter of the year. About a quarter of the $82,000 he received came from corporate PACs.

Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, both Oregon Democrats, also have continued to receive business PAC donations, according to their campaign finance reports.

In a written statement, Bonamici said that “we must find a way to get big money out of politics” and that she has supported legislation to do so. She did not discuss why she takes corporate PAC donations.

Wyden's office did not respond to a request for his reaction.

The largest recipient of corporate PAC donations in the Oregon delegation is its sole Republican, Rep. Greg Walden.

Walden chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee over the last two years and remains the panel’s top Republican. About two-thirds of the $327,000 he raised in the last three months came from corporate PACs.

Walden spokesman Justin Discigil said the congressman has no qualms about taking corporate money.

“As Greg has always said,” Discigil explained in an email, “the only thing someone gets in return for a contribution is a ‘thank you.’”

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