WaPo Follows TARP Money Back to Politicians

The Washington Post does a good job of keeping an eye on bailed-out companies’ campaign donations with this story yesterday. The short version: The cash goes from taxpayers to companies to politicians.

This is a nice lede:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was a fierce critic of the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler last year, saying he could not “ask the American taxpayer to subsidize failure.”

But GM doesn’t seem to hold a grudge.

The political action committee formed by the company, which is now largely owned by taxpayers, cut McConnell a $5,000 campaign check in September, a small piece of the $190,000 it donated to campaigns in the past month.

This is surely a small price to pay for all that free money and the super-lenient terms that came with it:

It is not alone: Companies that received federal bailout money, including some that still owe money to the government, are giving to political candidates with vigor. Among companies with PACs, the 23 that received $1 billion or more in federal money through the Troubled Assets Relief Program gave a total of $1.4 million to candidates in September, up from $466,000 the month before.

Most of those donations are going to Republican candidates, although the TARP program was approved primarily with Democratic support.

So to oversimplify, here’s how it works: Banks give to Republicans. Republicans (and Rubin Democrats) deregulate banks. Banks get into trouble. Banks give to Democrats. Democrats bail banks out. Democrats regulate the banks a bit more. Banks give to Republicans. Rinse. Repeat.

The Post illustrates how this is playing out across the country:

The bailouts have become campaign fodder for Republicans to use against their Democratic rivals. In a television commercial, former Republican senator Dan Coats pillories his opponent in the Indiana Senate race, Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D), for supporting “the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda,” including “the disastrous bank bailout.”

Coats has received more than $30,000 for his Senate campaign from companies, including J.P. Morgan Chase and GM, that took government money. No companies on the bailout list have donated to Ellsworth. Neither campaign responded to a request for comment.

The money-giving isn’t limited to the bailed out. The Post also notes that companies making money on the bailout, recipients of huge contracts, are getting into the game:

One company that used TARP funds to invest in toxic assets from other banks is getting into the political giving mode for the first time. The investment fund BlackRock created a federal PAC in March, only a few months after the company used $2 billion in government money to invest in those assets. Its newly formed PAC has cut campaign checks to federal lawmakers including Rep. Barney Frank (D.-Mass.), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

The Post doesn’t tally up how much money bailed-out companies have given overall. We get numbers for September and August, but that’s it.

But other than that, this is nice work.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.