In a June 6 conference call that went unreported before Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney urged an audience of small business owners to do something that’s long been considered illegal in the U.S. until just recently: He asked the bosses to tell their workers how they should vote in November.
“I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections,” Romney told members of the ostensibly nonpartisan National Federation of Independent Business, an anti-union group whose endorsements tend to align with Republicans.
“And whether you agree with me or you agree with President Obama, or whatever your political view, I hope — I hope you pass those along to your employees,” he added. “Nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business, because I think that will figure into their election decision, their voting decision and of course doing that with your family and your kids as well.”
Romney’s comment, first reported by Mike Elk at In These Times, comes amid several high-profile examples of employers forcing workers to attend political events, and others who’ve warned of potential consequences if their workers don’t vote a certain way.
In one such dust-up that’s resulted in a criminal complaint to the Federal Election Commission, coal miners working for Murray Energy in Ohio said earlier this year they feared they would be fired if they didn’t give money to a pro-Romney super PAC run by the company and attend a Romney event, helping to create an image that’s since been reused in a pro-Romney advertisement.
In another similar occurrence earlier this month, billionaire David Siegel sent letters to 7,000 employees and warned that some of them would be fired if President Barack Obama is reelected. “The economy doesn’t currently pose a threat to your job,” he wrote. “What does threaten your job however, is another 4 years of the same Presidential administration.”
Finally, the notorious billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, two key financiers behind the Republican tea party movement, sent a voter guide to more than 50,000 workers at Koch Industries warning of “consequences” if Obama is reelected. Attached editorials by both brothers Koch condemned President Obama and praised Gov. Romney, and a preferred candidate list featured nothing but Republicans.
The practice used to be illegal, but the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling changed that when it equated money with free speech, breaking the dam between corporate profits and campaign finance.
If this all seems somehow like a doomsayer’s prophecy fulfilled, that’s because it is: A survey conducted in 2010 by the nonpartisan Washington think tank Committee for Economic Development found that small businesses are feeling more pressure to make political donations, leaving a great many businesses seriously assessing the temptation of becoming miniature political parties all their own. In such a scenario, corporations could even feasibly force employees to campaign for candidates the workers don’t support.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) summarized the consequences of Citizens United another way, telling Current TV in July that it cleared the street for an overt shift to an “oligarchic form of government” in the U.S. “You’ve got that reality out there, and then what’s happening now — what Citizens United is about — is these guys are not content to own the economy, to own the wealth of America, they now want to own lock, stock and barrel the political process as well,” he said.
In an even more ominous-sounding forecast, former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter warned Bill Moyers in September that super PACS will come to represent “shadow party committees” that are inexorably linked to the campaigns and merely hide behind the guise of independence.
Though Romney’s comments may seem controversial, the NIFB appears to enthusiastically agree. A video promoted on the site advises viewers of the “Top 5 Ways Employers Can Discuss Elections with Their Employees,” with each item designed to impress upon their workers the importance of the employer’s political values. “You employees may be surprised to learn where some of their legislators stood on critical small business issues,” the presenter explains.
In a year when campaign ad buys are on pace to top $1 billion for television time alone, it’s not surprising that some businesses have engaged in a messaging arms race of sorts, which is often encouraged by the media. That perception is not just anecdotal, either: a Sunlight Foundation report published in September found that about 78 percent of this year’s elections spending is coming from outside groups, through channels dug by the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.
Critics of that decision, like President Obama and many Democrats in Congress, say the flood of corporate donations, many of them anonymous, equates to unseen forces buying elections. Since the ruling, several legislative attempts to seal the dam failed thanks to Republican filibusters in the Senate.
President Obama has since endorsed a constitutional amendment to require that all political spending be above board and never anonymous, even though Democrats have largely embraced many of the same campaign tactics the ruling created.
This video is from the National Federation of Independent Business, published June 7, 2012. Skip to 26 minutes to hear Romney’s quoted remarks.