Biden’s Million-Dollar Inaugural Donors Lobbied Against His Agenda

The Business Roundtable increased its lobbying spending last year by 70% over the previous year as its members pushed to pass the infrastructure bill first and kill the Build Back Better Act.

Biden’s Million-Dollar Inaugural Donors Lobbied Against His Agenda
President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

President Biden marked the one-year anniversary of his inauguration last week with a news conference and a video starring Tom Hanks promoting his administration’s achievements, while much of his domestic agenda remains blocked in the Senate. 

Last year, Biden continued his predecessors’ tradition of accepting large donations from corporations to his nonprofit inaugural committee, even though the proceedings were mostly virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the corporate giants that donated, like Lockheed Martin and Pfizer, spend tens of millions of dollars annually on lobbying for contracts and influence on legislation and policy throughout the federal government.  

The Biden inaugural would not disclose the amounts given by donors around the events, only their names, but in April an FEC disclosure showed that the televised events raised $61.8 million, including $1 million apiece (the cap on contributions that the committee set for itself) from 10 large companies, with smaller amounts coming from other corporations, some labor unions, and wealthy donors.

A donation of $1 million is considerably more than a corporation can normally give to an elected official in one fell swoop. In the 2020 election cycle, corporate PACs could contribute up to $10,000 to a federal candidate committee, augmented with up to $15,000 donated to a national party committee and padded with up to $45,000 apiece to the parties’ accounts for conventions, buildings, and legal and recount committees—still, nowhere near giving $1 million to the winner of the presidential election.

After the first year of a Biden White House, many inaugural donors are set to benefit from the hefty spending of the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law in November, while many of their trade associations lobbied against the Democrats’ signature Build Back Better Act that ran aground in the Senate and will now be broken into legislative pieces.

Decoupling the Biden Agenda

During the summer, Democrats in Congress and the White House had pursued a two-track strategy, where the physical infrastructure investments bill and the social spending programs and climate change package were to be passed by the House in tandem, keeping moderates and progressives united with only a few votes to spare. The coupling of the bills was still the plan in late October, when Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, resisted efforts by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and calls from moderates to pass the bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF) ahead of the larger Build Back Better Act (BBB), without assurances that the Senate Democratic holdouts were on board with passing the full BBB package through the budget reconciliation process. 

But just a week later, Pelosi decided to decouple the two bills, because moderates had raised ostensible concerns with the budget impacts of the BBB. House progressives agreed to vote on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which passed on Nov. 5 by 228-206. The bill, with $550 billion in new spending out of $1.2 trillion total, was signed into law in a ceremony on Nov. 15.

House progressives had received an assurance from Biden that his lengthy negotiations with Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema would deliver their crucial votes, and House Democrats passed the BBB on Nov. 19 by 220-213. It bounced back to the Senate, only to have Manchin blanch and then spike the bill in a Fox News Sunday appearance on Dec. 19. White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki claimed that Manchin had privately agreed to support a BBB framework and that a recent proposal from him was understood to be an adequate compromise to secure his vote, but that he had been misleading Biden. 

Looking at the largest donors to Biden’s inauguration and how they fared in the infrastructure bill offers a view on how big business ensures it benefits from the bipartisan measures that become law, and hinders more progressive legislation. The first year of this Democratic-controlled federal government continued the pattern where funding bills for fossil fuel infrastructure projects sailed through and become law, but corporate tax hikes or limits on greenhouse gas emissions stalled in the Senate.

U.S. Chamber Leads the Campaign

AT&T and Comcast each donated $1 million to the Biden inaugural, and Verizon gave at least $100,000. The telecom giants will benefit from the IIJA’s $65 billion investment in rural broadband infrastructure and bridging the digital divide, with AT&T saying it will expand its network in tandem with $14 billion in subsidies for low-income households to pay for internet. Comcast and trade association NCTA – The Internet & Television Association spent heavily on lobbying in the first half of last year, applauding the BIF in August and celebrating its signing. 

AT&T and Comcast participate in the “dark money” behemoth U.S. Chamber of Commerce—AT&T mentions its membership dues in a line in its lobbying disclosure, and former Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, its senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, is a member of the Chamber’s Board of Directors. Comcast discloses dues to regional chambers in its latest report, is described as an active participant in the Chamber’s nonprofit Foundation arm, and its vice president of external affairs, Mike Rose, was named chairman of the Chamber’s PAC in May. (Comcast previously claimed that full disclosure of its lobbying trade associations, including at the state level, would be too difficult.) In August, the Chamber of Commerce came out guns blazing against the BBB and its proposal to raise the corporate tax rate. The Chamber consistently called for physical infrastructure spending to pass, including on Oct. 27 urging the House to decouple the bills and pass the IIJA, then before it was signed releasing a fact sheet calling the bill fiscally responsible, reiterating that renewable energy standards were not part of this legislation.

In the fourth quarter of 2021, the Chamber of Commerce spent $19.5 million on lobbying, according to its latest disclosure report with the U.S. Senate, its largest quarter of the year and an increase over the nearly $16.4 million it spent in the third quarter. The Business Roundtable spent over $8.4 million in the fourth quarter, after spending over $11.8 million in the previous quarter. The Business Roundtable’s $29.1 million spent on lobbying in 2021 is a large increase over its nearly $17 million spent on lobbying in 2020, and more than its $20 million spent in 2019. NCTA had its biggest lobbying quarter of the year from October through December, spending nearly $4.2 million.

Verizon’s trade association memberships include CTIA – The Wireless Association and USTELECOM – The Broadband Association, the former of which cheered the infrastructure bill while warning of tax provisions in the Build Back Better Act, and the latter of which appreciated the IIJA’s “private model of broadband deployment,” backed by public subsidies.

Business Roundtable Leaps in Lobbying

The CEOs of all three companies are members of the Business Roundtable, the high-spending lobby group for big business that joined the Chamber in what it told the Washington Post would be a “a significant, multifaceted campaign” against the BBB’s proposed increases to corporate tax rates, about halfway to their pre-2017 levels—from the current 21% to 28%, or to 26.5% under a fallback proposal. The corporate tax increases were dropped from the BBB in September negotiations, leaving in a 5% surtax on taxpayers earning over $10 million, a 15% alternative minimum tax on foreign earnings of large corporations, and other provisions.

Boeing donated $1 million to Biden’s inaugural and belongs to the U.S. Chamber, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), whose official said they were lobbying against the BBB’s proposed corporate tax hikes “in every way you can imagine.” The IIJA contained $25 billion for airport maintenance and repair across the country. Fellow defense contractor Lockheed Martin also donated $1 million and belongs to the Chamber, the Business Roundtable, and trade association the American Chemistry Council (ACC). Like other industry groups, the chemicals and plastics lobby praised the IIJA’s passage, other than some new Superfund taxes it imposed, while warning of tax provisions in the BBB that it claimed would lead to increased costs to consumers.

Dow Chemical donated $100,000 to the inauguration, as it did to Trump’s. Former Dow chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris, employed in that role for 14 years before stepping down in 2018, has served as co-chair of the CEO working group of Build Together, a bipartisan group of CEOs formed in 2019 to campaign for infrastructure investments. Liveris promoted the infrastructure bill in media appearances with Fortune and Fox Business, saying in a statement, “This positive impact is magnified exponentially if it can be done in a bipartisan manner.”  

But the ACC, whose manufacturer members include Dow, DuPont, Linde plc, and the chemical divisions of oil companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil, brushed back the BBB and its provisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example through a proposed tax on plastics. The ACC ended last year with its biggest lobbying push of over $7.3 million spent in the fourth quarter, overall in 2021 spending an increase of about one-fifth over the last year of the Trump presidency.

Fossil Fuels, Health Insurers, PhRMA

In addition to the ACC, Dow is a member of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), which in late September said it launched a seven-figure ad campaign targeting House Democrats against the BBB’s tax provisions. AFPM’s support for oil and gas pipelines helps its members benefit from $25 billion in potential fossil fuel industry subsidies in the IIJA, according to an August analysis from the Center for International Environmental Law. Several House members made multimillion dollar purchases of pipeline company stocks in the months before the BIF was passed and signed into law and before the BBB was scuttled in the Senate. 

Other million-dollar donors to Biden’s inaugural included Bank of America, Pfizer, and Uber, each of which is a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and Qualcomm, which is involved with the Chamber’s Foundation. Ford and General Motors each gave at least $100,000 to the Biden-Harris inauguration; Ford is a member of the Chamber of Commerce and NAM, and both belong to the Business Roundtable and the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which according to the UK researchers InfluenceMap has a mixed record of support for vehicle electrification.

Health insurer Anthem and biopharm company Amgen each donated $100,000 to the inaugural events. Anthem has paid millions in annual dues to America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), and by August, the health insurance industry was working behind the scenes to stop proposed Medicare expansion in the reconciliation bill. Amgen is a member of industry groups PhRMA and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), and the drugmakers’ lobby groups warned against passing the BBB and its drug pricing reforms to allow Medicare to negotiate the prices of most-purchased treatments, arguing it would harm innovation but pocketing billions of dollars in stock dividends and buybacks.

Early last year, Biden made gestures at some ethics considerations by capping corporate donations to his inaugural committee at $1 million and individual donations at $500,000, and by barring donations from fossil fuel companies or their executives, though that decision raises the question of why donations from military contractors and Big Pharma were acceptable. Inaugural donations would be cut down to a maximum of $50,000 if provisions in the Democrats’ major ethics bill H.R. 1 are passed, but that package has been twice filibustered by Senate Republicans, and Manchin and Sinema will not support a rules change to be able to vote on it. In any case, Manchin’s compromise version of an ethics and elections access bill he suggested he might support in June dropped any caps on inauguration donations.

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