Google has surpassed Goldman Sachs as a US political donor in a sign of Silicon Valley’s increasingly assertive efforts to shape policy and counter critical scrutiny in Washington.
Google’s political action committee, NetPAC, has spent more money on political campaigns this year than Goldman, at $1.43m, just edging out the $1.4m by the bank that is famous for its political connections. That is a marked change from the last midterm election in 2010, when Google spent only a third as much as Goldman.
Technology companies are spending big money this year to build political support as Washington debates issues critical to the sector from tax, to increasing the number of visas for skilled migrants to greater oversight of US intelligence agencies.
While people working in the technology sector typically lean left, tech companies in the latest political cycle are increasingly donating more to Republicans or splitting their giving equally between the two parties.
In 2010, Democratic federal candidates received 55 per cent of tech PAC contributions, while Republicans received 45 per cent, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2014, as the right looks to solidify its control of the House of Representatives and possibly take control of the Senate, Democrats received 48 per cent to the Republicans’ 52 per cent.
“The executives of those companies may not always agree with Republicans on social issues, but for a lot of them, at the end of the day, business is business,” said Reed Galen, a Republican consultant based in California. Republicans’ bias towards low regulation appeals to leaders of a sector that often launches new products, such as drones or disappearing photo sharing apps, faster than regulators can keep up.
Tech and internet donors have given almost $22.5m so far in the 2014 election cycle, according to the CRP. That still pales in comparison to the $121m donated by the securities and investment industry, where the close ties between Wall Street and Washington earned Goldman the nickname of “Government Sachs”. However, it is part of a broader build-up of the tech industry’s presence in Washington.
Twitter formed a PAC in August 2013, while Yelp did the same at the end of last year. Companies such as Uber and Apple, which do not have PACs of their own, are spending much more heavily on lobbyists. Younger tech companies are increasingly taking their place alongside traditional players such as Intel and Oracle in their lobbying efforts. And while 2010s donations were dominated by Microsoft, today’s donations come more evenly from a wider base of companies.
Google says its NetPAC contributions are decided by a bipartisan group of senior executives. The factors affecting donations, according to the company’s transparency statement, include candidates’ “commitment to an open internet”, their leadership roles, and seats they may hold on committees considering legislation relevant to the company.
Bob Goodlatte, a Republican congressman from rural Virginia, is one of the legislators most closely watched and most heavily funded by Silicon Valley. He is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is discussing reform of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programmes, as well as immigration and intellectual property issues.
As such, Mr Goodlatte deals with issues of deep concern to technology companies, who want more skilled engineers, an improved patent system, and reassurances that US intelligence agents are not hacking into their data centres.
In the House, he has raked in more money from the tech industry than anyone but John Boehner, the Republican speaker, according to data from the CRP. Among the donations to Mr Goodlatte’s campaign: $10,000 each from the political action committees of Google, Microsoft and Intel, plus additional donations from employees and executives of those and other companies.
The donations this cycle have largely flowed to a few candidates such as Mr Goodlatte who sit on key committees, as well as the two parties’ national organisations and candidates seen as up-and-coming leaders or potential presidential contenders, such as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
Mr Booker, a Democrat who once received funding from Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt for a start-up, is the single largest individual recipient of donations from the sector, having been given $364,450 this election cycle so far.
Rohit Khanna, a Democratic contender for Congress from the district that includes Silicon Valley itself, has also raised substantial funding. Both men are seen as strong supporters of the industry.
Companies and executives also gave heavily to Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who had, until recently, been pushing for reform to immigration. Tech companies hope such reform could lead to more visas for foreign engineers. Facebook’s PAC, as well as its founder Mark Zuckerberg, donated heavily to Mr Rubio, as did Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, and Tesla founder Elon Musk.
Tech company employees tend to donate to Democrats, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit group that supports government transparency.
Nearly all the top recipients of donations from Google employees were Democrats, with the exception of Mr Goodlatte and Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from southern California who sits on the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee for intellectual property and the internet. The breakdown for other companies is similar.
However, many in Silicon Valley, such as PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, lean libertarian, and libertarian Senator Rand Paul has been a frequent visitor to the Valley to drum up support and money for a possible presidential campaign in 2016.
Donations have also poured in from techies to an iconoclastic PAC devoted to reducing the influence of money on politics. The PAC, named Mayday, is being run by noted Harvard technology law professor Lawrence Lessig, an advocate of campaign finance reform. Employees of Google and their family members have donated over $100,000 to Mayday, making it one of the most popular recipients of their donations.
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