Bill Gates's recent friendly, folksy appearance on Martha Stewart Living was one indicator of how born-again Microsoft is re-spinning its greedy corporate image in the wake of antitrust accusations. Even more revealing is the company's new burst of political spending on molding the pliable minds of Congress. Barely on the political charts a year ago, the Redmond, Washington, software titan has suddenly become a top player in D.C. power circles, spending more than $3 million in 1997 and 1998 (in combined political contributions and lobbying fees) to enlist candidates and twist arms. Its dazzling soft-money payments (contributions to parties, who buy advertising and indirectly benefit candidates, skirting campaign-limit laws) jumped sixfold over those of 1996 the days before the Justice Department began to get serious about Microsoft's alleged monopoly practices.
According to updated figures from the Federal Elections Commission, the once mostly apolitical corporation softly stuffed $654,800 into candidates' pockets nearly all of them Republican to become one of the nation's biggest donors of soft money.
Records show that in the midst of its antitrust shoot-out, Microsoft last spring began donating heavily to the Republican National State Elections Committee $99,000 and $100,000 in March and April. Thousands more flowed in throughout the summer, and in October Microsoft added a GOP election-time goose of $285,000. In the same period, Republican senator Slade Gorton became an outspoken defender of Gates, his Seattle neighbor and a suspected Democrat. Altogether in '97 and '98, Microsoft handed over $519,800 to the Republican Party and just $135,000 to the Democratic Party.
Microsoft contributed an additional $500,000 through regulated hard-money corporate and employee donations, pushing its total political giving in '97'98 beyond $1 million two-thirds of it to Republicans according to the Center for Responsive Politics in D.C. (That's triple Microsoft's 1996 hard-money spending.) Similarly, corporate lobbying costs zoomed to nearly $2 million in 1998. The company now employs such well-connected Capitol Hill lobbyists as former GOP chairman Haley Barbour and former GOP and Democratic congressmen Vin Weber and Vic Fazio.