Foreigners can't donate in U.S. elections, but what about foreign companies?
On Tuesday, the Federal Election Commission reconsidered whether U.S. corporations that are subsidiaries of a foreign company should be able to donate in U.S. elections.
Democratic FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel proposed banning such contributions. The three Republican commissioners argued the current law protects the rights of American employees working for foreign companies.
What the law says
The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) prohibits any foreign national from either directly or indirectly contributing to any federal, state or local election in the U.S.
In a 1978 advisory opinion, the FEC examined PAC donations made by a U.S. subsidiary owned by a foreign parent company. It concluded that if Americans operate the PAC, and the PAC only collects funds from American donors, the ban on contributions doesn't apply.
What Citizens United has to do with this
The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision made it possible for U.S. corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities. That applies to U.S.-based subsidiaries of foreign companies, as well.
There are roughly 200 foreign-linked PACs this election cycle, according to Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.
Fears of foreign influence aren't new
The concern that foreigners could buy influence in our democracy is one that dates back centuries.
In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned against "the insidious wiles of foreign influence." He and the Founding Fathers were so concerned with maintaining their democracy's independence, they came up with a constitutional ban on foreigners making cash payments to U.S. officials.
President Obama, too, has expressed concern.
"I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities," he said during his 2010 State of the Union address.
How much money are we talking?
The role of these foreign-connected PACs has increased over the last decade. As of July 21, 2016, they'd contributed a total of $12.9 million to federal candidates.
Holman expects that number will surpass $20 million by November.
Who are these companies?
Most are headquartered in Europe, although several of these foreign corporations can be found in Japan, Israel and Canada.
Beermakers: Anheuser-Busch (Belgium), Heineken (Netherlands) and MillerCoors (UK)
Drugmakers: AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals (UK), GlaxoSmithKline (UK), Novartis (Switzerland) and Sanofi (France)
Finance: Credit Suisse Securities (Switzerland), UBS Americas (Switzerland)
For a complete list, check out OpenSecrets.org.