What’s Fueling the Clinton Campaign?

Hillary Clinton speaks to attendees at a campaign stop at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa.Hillary Clinton speaks to attendees at a campaign stop at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Photo: Matt A.J.)

Hillary Clinton couldn’t help but be spitting mad at the Greenpeace activist who confronted her about the money her campaign has taken from the fossil fuel industry, asking the candidate if she would pledge to reject such money in the future.

“I don’t have — I have money from people who work for fossil fuel companies,” the Democratic frontrunner snapped, pointing her finger at activist Eva Resnick-Day. “I am so sick. I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me!”

But who’s doing the lying?

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At a time when ice in the Antarctic is melting at an accelerated rate due to climate change, prompting new warnings about a rise of the earth’s oceans by more than three feet by the end of the century, the issue of fossil fuels and climate change ought to be center stage this election season.

With the Republicans so anti-science and pro-business that they barely admit that climate change is happening, let alone that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of it, most voters who care about the environment are looking to Democrats for an alternative.

That was the reasoning behind Greenpeace’s decision earlier this year to ask presidential candidates to sign what it calls the “Pledge to Fix Democracy.” Among other things, the pledge includes defending the right to vote, supporting public funding for elections and overturning Citizens United — and refusing money from fossil-fuel industry PACs and corporations, as well as energy company lobbyists, board members and executives. Bernie Sanders and the Green Party’s Jill Stein are the only two candidates currently in the race who have signed the pledge.

Clinton hasn’t signed the pledge, but her campaign certainly knows about it. So when the candidate was asked by Eva Resnick-Day if she would stop taking money from the oil and energy giants, Clinton engaged in some classic political-year word games.

On the surface, Clinton’s campaign doesn’t appear to have directly received that much money from the fossil fuel industry. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org website, as of March 21, the Clinton campaign had received $308,000 from individuals connected to the oil and gas industry. That’s a lot of money, but not when it’s compared to the tens of millions her campaign has taken in overall.

Unsurprisingly, the Sanders campaign has received even less — about $54,000 from individuals in the oil and gas industries, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Overall, Democrats have received just 2.3 percent of all oil and gas contributions in this election cycle, according to The Washington Post.

Clinton proudly trumpeted this statistic in a Meet the Press appearance — before condescending to a whole generation of people, in classic Clinton fashion: “I feel sorry sometimes for the young people who, you know, believe this. They don’t do their own research. And I’m glad that we can now point to reliable independent analysis to say no, it’s just not true.”

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But of course, the money directly donated by individuals connected to the fossil fuel industry only tells part of the story.

Under the law, political campaigns are prohibited from taking money directly from corporations — but there are plenty of loopholes for companies to grease the wheels of the political machine.

Candidates like Clinton who want to pretend to be independent of big business and tough on corporate greed can claim to stand above the fray because individuals and corporations from certain industries don’t give money directly to them. Instead, the lobbyists that represent those industries bundle money from wealthy donors and donate it to the “super PACs.”

Technically known as “independent expenditure-only committees,” super PACs can’t donate to individual candidates. But they can raise unlimited sums — often tens of millions of dollars — from corporations, industry associations and individuals, and that money is used to advocate for or against candidates, allegedly independent of the official campaigns. (Ever wonder who or what is behind those innocuously named groups that pay for the attack ads running nonstop on your TV? Thank a super PAC.)

Greenpeace nailed down the slippery semantics around donations from PACs, corporations, lobbyists and top executives:

Fifty-eight lobbyists that work for the coal, oil and gas companies have given $138,400 directly to the Clinton campaign. Forty-seven of those lobbyists gave the maximum allowable amount — $2,700.

Eleven oil and gas industry lobbyists also bundled $1,327,210 for Clinton’s campaign as of the end of 2015. Bundling is a practice in which lobbyists use their personal and professional networks to collect additional donations for campaigns.

Add it all up, says Greenpeace, and the Clinton campaign has received some $4.5 million from lobbyists, bundlers and big donors connected the fossil fuel industry. That includes $3.25 million given to a single super PAC called “Priorities USA Action” — the main super PAC supporting Clinton.

“When people walk into a room with $3.25 million, in a political system where you have to raise this kind of money to win,” said Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman, “you’re going to have to make concessions.”

Charlie Cray, a research specialist for Greenpeace, expanded on the point, in an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman:

Clinton has actually taken some very good positions on climate, and she has…pledged to regulate the fracking industry… And she’s basically taking money from the lobbyists for those very companies who would oppose the policies that she has pledged to carry out.

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Clinton blew up at a straightforward question because she got caught out playing the same cynical game that pretty much all candidates of the two major parties do in each election cycle: Pretending they’re somehow independent of the industries spending tens of millions of dollars to get them elected.

It’s a game Clinton that is practiced at playing. Back in February, she bristled when the co-moderator of a PBS candidates’ debate, Judy Woodruff, questioned her about Priorities USA Action. “Nearly half of your financial sector donations come from…George Soros and Donald Sussman,” Woodruff asked. “You said there’s no quid pro quo. Is that also true of the donations that wealthy Republicans give to Republican candidates, contributors including the Koch brothers?”

“You’re referring to a super PAC that we don’t coordinate with,” Clinton lectured, “that was set up to support President Obama, that has now decided they want to support me. They are the ones who should respond to any questions.”

But as Charlie Cray told Goodman: “Well, legally, [a candidate like Clinton] can’t control [a super PAC], but she can send a signal — she can say that she doesn’t want her super PAC taking any money from the fossil fuel industry. And they would abide by that.”

While Clinton claims that she has no say in what Priorities USA Action does with the money it raises, she certainly has been concerned with making sure it rakes in cash by the bucketful.

As the New York Times pointed out last year, Clinton was “personally courting” donors for Priorities USA Action, with the hope that it would ultimately raise between $200-300 million for her campaign. This was, according to the Times, “the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has fully embraced these independent groups that can accept unlimited checks from big donors and are already playing a major role in the 2016 race.”

One major donor to Priorities USA Action is Donald Sussman, founder and chairman of the hedge fund Paloma Partners, which is invested in energy companies like Phillips 66, AGL Resources and Occidental Petroleum. By the end of 2015, Sussman had given $1.5 million to Priorities USA Action, according to OpenSecrets.org.

So is it any wonder that, back in December, when an environmental activist at a campaign stop in Iowa asked Clinton if she would reject donations tied to the fossil-fuel industry, she flatly refused? “Individuals who might have some connection to whatever industry, I’m not going to do a litmus test on them,” she stated.

So Clinton got caught with her hand in the cookie jar. But everyone knows she’s not the only political leader implicated in contributions from the most special of special interests: big corporations.

Woodrow Wilson, who was president near the beginning of the 20th century, couldn’t possibly have imagined the twisted system that exists for making bribery of top political officials completely legal. But his comment on the reality of the two-party system remains as true today as when he said it 100 years ago:

Suppose you go to Washington and try to get at your government. You will always find that while you are politely listened to, the men really consulted are the men who have the big stake — the big bankers, the big manufacturers and the big masters of commerce…The masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States.