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.comment: TechnoPolitics

Strange Bedfellows

October 18, 2000

Much has been made this year about "special interests" trying to buy favors by providing financial support to political candidates. Oddly, those who have been in the most flagrant violation of laws governing such things seem also to be doing the loudest squawking, but we can let that pass-- the rest of the media certainly have. Instead, let's take a little look at who has been giving how much to whom, just for fun.

There is a long tradition, which may or may not be accurate, that if you have business before the government--or if you wish to do business with the government--you had best be on record as having ponied up some cash during the most recent election, and the cash had better have gone to the winner. It isn't so much that a contribution will guarantee you success as it is that the lack of a contribution may well guarantee you failure. Or so the tradition goes.

A less cynical and probably more accurate explanation is that if someone supports the things that are good for you and for your company, you'll be inclined to do what you can to see that person gets elected.

The Federal Elections Commission keeps track of political donations--the legal ones, anyway--and the information they've collected is available online. So I've taken a little while and gone poking around and have found some interesting things. Please bear in mind that these are by no means complete--I don't know the names of every software company or software company executive. Mostly, I was looking for obvious trends, and I found some.

Gates and Ellison in Agreement? C'mon

When was the last time you heard of Bill Gates and Larry Ellison agreeing on anything? Well, they agree on Spencer Abraham, a Republican senator from Michigan. Abraham has supported legislation seen as favorable to the computer industry, particularly H-1B visas, which allow programmers and other technical folks from overseas to come to work in the U.S. And he has received money from both the Oracle Corporation Political Action Committee ($2,000) and the Microsoft Corporation Political Action Committee ($10,000).

Both Oracle and Microsoft (and a number of other corporations) have set up political action committees--Ellison and Gates make their donations promarily through those PACs.

Who else do these software giants support? It's a pretty broad spectrum: Both have contributed to, for instance, John Ashcroft, Republican senator from Missouri, and Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana. Microsoft does not share Oracle's enthusiam for California Democrat Barbara Boxer, but likes Mary Bono, Republican congresswoman from that state. And on it goes, hundreds of donations. Microsoft likes to donate to other PACs whose purposes are not instantly identifiable--they include the American Dream Political Action Committee, the American Renewal Political Action Committee, and the American Success Political Action Committee--but has made no direct presidential contributions. (I have searched but can find no record of any American Nightmare, American Same Old Same Old, or American Failure PACs; these outfits tend to pick puffy, vague names, kind of like software programs.) Oracle, meanwhile, has donated money to the George W. Bush committee and not to Albert Gore Jr. (though it kicked in $2,000 to keep Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democrat vice presidential candidate, in the Senate, before he started running for V.P., too). Both have donated lots--tens of thousands of dollars--to both parties. There is no way to find any particular favoritism--the money to the extreme right is balanced by money to the extreme left. And there's lots in between.

Nor have these companies been ignored. Microsoft for instance, which has some business you may have heard about before a federal appellate court, received a visit from Gore in the spring; interestingly, reporters were not allowed, and there's been no detailed account of what he said. Gore is behind in Washington state, in large measure it's thought because of the administration's treatment of Microsoft. The tea leaves are impossible to read: some say that Bush would drop the antitrust suit, while some say that if it looks close enough that Washington could be decisive, the administration might drop the suit just before the election. And, again, we don't know what Gore told the employees, who don't have to contribute through the PAC, behind closed doors, or whether it resulted in a deluge of money for his campaign. But, again, the Microsoft PAC hasn't exactly been falling all over itself to ship money to Bush, at least not in any easily identifiable way.

News accounts have suggested that Silicon Valley generally favors Bush's more business-friendly, freedom-friendly campaign. By all means log on to the FEC site and take a look for yourself.

Ellison, by the way, has given $20,000 to his company's PAC. For Gates, it's a family thing: Bill has donated $20,000 while wife Melinda contributed $15,000.

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