Can America Afford Corporate Lobbyists?

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Election season is in full swing, with the Iowa caucuses completed, the New Hampshire primary on deck this week and South Carolina's primary coming up fast. The Republican contenders are running hard, and are all pushing variations on certain common themes: trimming federal spending, cutting taxes, and shrinking the nation's ballooning deficit, now estimated somewhere north of $15 trillion. It's a terrifying figure, and one that the new president -- whoever he may be -- will certainly have to address.

The nation's financial condition is a serious problem, and one that will ultimately affect every segment of the population. That's why it's a little concerning that none of the candidates appear to have yet picked up on a December 2011 report by Public Campaign, a self-described " non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to sweeping campaign reform that aims to dramatically reduce the role of big special interest money in American politics." Citing data from its non-profit peers Citizens for Tax Justice and the Center for Responsive Politics, Public Campaign demonstrates that some of the largest corporations in the United States have spent millions on lobbyists in the past three years and, in the process, managed to eliminate their tax liability or even receive tax rebates.

Public Campaign examined statistics for thirty big corporations in several industries: communications ( Verizon); energy ( General Electric, American Electric Power, Consolidated Edison and several others); financial services ( Wells Fargo); shipping ( FedEx); and manufacturing ( Boeing, Mattel, Corning and others). Between them, those companies spent $476 million dollars over three years to lobby Congress or, as Public Campaign pointed out, approximately $400,000 every day, including weekends.

The companies' lobbying undoubtedly focused on multiple issues, but it appears that tax avoidance must have been one of them. Twenty-nine of the 30 companies actually received tax rebates over the three years in question. For example, General Electric reportedly spent over $84 million on lobbying; its tax rate came in at -45% for the same period and the company reported received a tax rebate of nearly $5 million. Of the 30 companies studied, only FedEx paid taxes, and that at a measly 1% three-year rate, significantly less than the statutory rate of 35%.

It's not as though the companies in question were losing money. For example, Verizon reportedly profited by $32.5 million over the same three-year period, while General Electric generated profits in excess of $10 million and Wells Fargo brought in a cool $49.3 million. Overall, the 30 companies reportedly generated over $163.6 million over the three years, while receiving approximately $10.6 million in tax rebates.

It may be that Congress thought giving tax cuts to these companies would generate jobs. If so, Congress may have been mistaken. According to the non-profit Institute for Policy Studies, at least seven of the companies studied actually laid off workers during the three-year period. Verizon reportedly laid off over 21,000 workers, while Boeing laid off almost 15,000. In total, Public Campaign reported that over 53,000 workers were laid off by the seven studied companies for which it could find data. It's difficult to know how many more were let go but not publicly reported.

So what does this mean for the nation? When facing an estimated deficit of more than $15 trillion, the mere millions in tax breaks described above may not seem like much. However, one can't simply presume that the only corporations that have benefitted from expensively-lobbied tax breaks are the 30 companies in the Public Campaign report. Congress is notoriously loath to name individual corporations in legislation, and rightly so. That means that any tax break given to a major corporation at the urging of pricey lobbyists benefits any other corporation that qualifies for it.

Although it's difficult to estimate how many millions in tax breaks corporations may currently enjoy, it's probably safe to assume from the Public Campaign report that the number is very, very big. Corporations provide jobs, essential goods and services and, of course, investor income. It's all good and important, but they use publicly funded facilities like roads, satellite access and airports just like private citizens do. They shouldn't get a free ride on their federal taxes, especially at a time when the federal government is drowning in debt and the consumers they serve are struggling mightily just to get by.

Presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle work hard to manage appearances and to present their ideas in slick, non-specific sound bites. In the Internet era, however, they can't avoid having their answers to voters' questions recorded on cell phones and broadcast around the world. It's time voters started asking candidates how to reform the tax code so that corporations pay their fair share. We'll see what the candidates have to say on YouTube.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.