Apr 1, 2021 - Technology

D.C.'s tech money shame game

Illustration of fingers pointing towards a $100 bill

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Big Tech dollars may be becoming toxic in Washington.

What's happening: The once lionized industry finds itself more and more cast as a pariah, with lawmakers comparing Big Tech to Big Tobacco during a hearing with tech CEOs last week and a key House Republican forswearing industry donations.

Yes, but: Plenty of officeholders still welcome tech contributions. And tech companies are doing their own re-assessing of how they give to candidates following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, after which many paused donations.

The big picture: The strained relationship on both ends represents a shift in Washington, where money previously flowed between tech and lawmakers with little question.

Driving the news: The lead Republican on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), announced last week he will stop accepting donations from Amazon, Facebook and Google.

  • His counterpart on the subcommittee, Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), does not accept money from corporate political action committees or companies that may be subject to scrutiny from the subcommittee.

Buck's move could start a trend. But so far other Republicans who have castigated tech companies are not refusing their donations, and Democrats have a range of positions as well.

Between the lines: Some Republicans in the House are urging the party to embrace its abandonment by "liberal corporations" in order make the GOP the party of the working class and drum up individual donations, according to a memo by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) obtained by Axios' Jonathan Swan.

Our thought bubble: Activist campaigns tarring whole industries have worked in the past against the cigarette industry and have begun to have an impact on fossil fuel producers.

  • Tech could be at the start of a similar slide — but its opponents remain divided and the public hasn't yet come to view it as a villain (though that may be starting, too).

Where key Republicans stand on tech donations:

  • Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, received $10,000 from Google NetPAC in 2020, according to Federal Election Commission records. He raised more than $18 million in the 2019-2020 cycle. (“Any citizen has the constitutionally protected right to make a campaign contribution — even those at the tech firms that Congressman Jordan has called for to be broken up," a spokesperson for the office told Axios.)
  • Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking member, described tech platforms as her "biggest fear" as a parent during last week's hearing. She received $10,000 from Google NetPAC, $6,000 from Facebook's and $10,000 from Amazon's PAC in the 2019-2020 cycle.(“No contribution Cathy receives influences how she votes or her actions in Congress. Period," a Rodgers spokesperson said in a statement.)
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who wants to roll back tech's content moderation protections, received $2,500 from Facebook PAC and $6,000 from Amazon PAC in the 2019-20 cycle. (His office did not comment.)
  • Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Commerce Committee who has talked tough on tech, received $3,500 from Facebook PAC, $2,500 from Amazon PAC and $5,000 from Google NetPAC since 2019. (His office did not comment.)

Among Democrats:

  • House E&C Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) received $10,000 each from Google NetPac, Amazon PAC and Facebook PAC from 2019-2020. (A spokesperson declined comment.)
  • House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) received $10,000 from Google NetPac and $5,000 from Facebook PAC during that time. ("Congressman Nadler’s record speaks for itself — he has a long history of taking difficult, principled stands...without regard to political contributions," Nadler campaign spokesperson Robert Gottheim said.)
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn,), chair of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, do not accept corporate PAC donations.
  • Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the full committee chairman, received $6,000 from Facebook PAC, $5,000 from Amazon PAC and $5,000 from Google PAC from 2019-20. (His office did not respond to a request for comment.)

What they're saying: “People just do not trust these companies and do not think they’re good actors," Rachel Bovard, a former Senate aide now with the Conservative Partnership Institute, told Axios.

  • "Overall, tech money is still pervasive in Washington, so let’s not overstate the trend," said Sarah Miller, executive director of the anti-monopoly group the American Economic Liberties Project. "But Big Tech doesn’t make investments where it doesn’t feel confident it can secure some degree of influence, so breaking financial relationships is an important way to signal independence and acknowledge conflicts of interest are both real and harmful."

Meanwhile, conservative think tank Heritage Foundation rejected contributions from Google and Facebook last year.

  • Public Knowledge, a left-leaning tech policy group, stopped accepting money from Facebook last year due to its "failure to demonstrate an understanding of demands regarding racial justice and voter suppression from the civil rights community."
  • The Center for American Progress noted it stopped taking money from Facebook after 2019.
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