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Big business gave $185 million to political groups in 2012

Some of the biggest corporations in the U.S. poured at least $185 million into political nonprofit groups in 2012, according to a new analysis from the Center for Public Integrity.

Many of the biggest donors were marquee names in American business, like tech titan Microsoft Corp, pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., and energy conglomerate Exelon Corp.

And some of the biggest beneficiaries of this corporate political spending were familiar, politically influential trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), PhRMA, and the Business Roundtable.

While the list provides an extensive and revealing look at the world of corporate political spending, it is far from an exhaustive compilation. The donations scrutinized fall under a category of political spending called “dark money,” a name given because the beneficiaries of the spending – 501(c)4 and 501(c)6 nonprofit organizations – are not required by law to disclose their donors.

As a result, the Center for Public Integrity was forced to rely on voluntary disclosures by the companies themselves. The $185 million tally was tabulated by examining the disclosure forms of the 300 largest American companies, as ranked by Fortune magazine. Roughly one third of these companies opted to disclose their political contributions. Dozens more reported financial affiliations with political groups without providing more detail.

Some of the companies that did not disclose their political expenditures were also among America’s largest, including Wal-Mart and ExxonMobil.

Of the $185 million total, 84 percent went to trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AHIP, and the American Petroleum Institute. Thirteen percent was donated to social welfare nonprofits like the Democratic-aligned Third Way think tank, the Fix the Debt Coalition, and others.

The single biggest donor was Exelon Corp, followed by health insurerer WellPoint Inc., Microsoft, and Merck, respectively.

The biggest beneficiary, meanwhile, was the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, followed closely by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Edison Electric Institute, and the Chamber of Commerce.

While some of the groups are not viewed as particularly partisan in their political activities, others, particularly the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, provided a crucial source of financial firepower in recent elections.

The Chamber, the analysis notes, was the most frequently identified recipient of corporate money, with at least 62 of the 300 companies analyzed offering the Chamber's donations to the tune of nearly $11 million. 

In the 2012 election, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $32 million on political advertisements, according to the Federal Election Commission. The lion’s share of those advertisements criticized President Obama and congressional Democrats, boosting the campaign of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney and Republicans down-ballot.

The Chamber has also lobbied fiercely to defeat the DISCLOSE Act, a bill pushed by Democratic leaders that would require politically active nonprofit groups – like the Chamber and many of its peers in the Center for Public Integrity's analysis – to reveal more information about their sources of funding.

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