But on issues including sugar subsidies, online gambling, spending on military contractors, telecom regulations, and taxpayer support to scandal-plagued for-profit colleges, Rubio has backed a sweeping and costly role for the federal government.
What is it about those issues that gets Rubio to act against his stated small-government principles? They’re all associated with powerful political donors Rubio has carefully cultivated over the years.
- Sugar Subsidies: Federal sugar subsidies provide sugar producers with special loans that boost the price of sugar for consumers while guaranteeing profits above a government-set price. Rubio has defended the sugar program by claiming that without it, “other countries will capture the market share,” U.S. agricultural land will be developed, and Americans will find themselves “at the mercy of a foreign country for food security.” His view baffles many observers who see the subsidies as one of the more damaging examples of corporate welfare. It is less baffling once you realize that the Fanjul family, which owns sugar production interests, has lavished Rubio with campaign donations throughout his political career while lobbying to maintain the subsidies.
- Medicare Advantage: Though Rubio has campaigned on a promise to tackle entitlement spending, he has simultaneously fought aggressively to defend Medicare Advantage, a program that allows private insurers to administer Medicare plans. The program is rife with waste and fraud: An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found nearly $70 billion in improper payments to private health plans over just a five-year period for the program. It’s a cash cow for health insurers, however, and health insurers provided Rubio with direct campaign cash and bankrolled a dark money group that helped elect Rubio to the Senate in 2010.
- Online Gambling: In the Senate, Rubio sponsored anti-online gambling legislation heavily backed by major Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, who owns a chain of casinos. Rubio expressed support for the bill while aggressively courting the billionaire for support, and has met privately with Adelson on several occasions. Rubio is one of many presidential candidates seeking financial backing from Adelson in large part because Adelson has been willing to donate large amounts to Super PACs. In 2012, he gave more than $100 million to Republican campaign efforts.
- Municipal Broadband: Rubio typically backs a shift of power to local governments. Not so for cities that have chosen to sponsor high-speed municipal broadband networks for their residents, however. Municipal broadband networks often provide services at 50 times the rate of private telecom providers, for less money. Rubio wants to allow state governments to ban such services. He has close ties to the telecom lobby, particularly AT&T, which has fought to block competition from municipal broadband networks. Two of Rubio’s leading fundraisers work for lobbying firms retained by AT&T.
- For-Profit Colleges: Corinthian Colleges, once one of the largest for-profit colleges in America, was plagued by reports of fraud and deceptive recruiting practices. The company relied on $1.4 billion in taxpayer-backed student loans to stay afloat, even as evidence mounted that the company systematically deceived students and federal regulators using fake job-placement numbers, heavily inflated tuition rates, and engaged in a slew of other predatory practices, including illegal debt collection efforts and job counseling services that were in fact simply links to job postings on Craigslist. Despite the overwhelming evidence that Corinthian Colleges was engaged in taxpayer fraud, Rubio authored a letter to the Department of Education requesting that the agency “demonstrate leniency” with the company. Perhaps not coincidentally, Corinthian executives donated to Rubio campaigns, and documents The Intercept obtained show that the company secretly backed a dark money group that helped elect Rubio in 2010.
- Military Spending: Rubio is campaigning on a pledge to hike military spending by $1 trillion over the next 10 years, and similarly promises to exert more military muscle abroad. Fundraising records show that Rubio raises cash regularly at events hosted by lobbyists for the largest defense contractors in America, including Boeing, General Dynamics, and Honeywell. In addition, as we’ve previously reported, several of Rubio’s foreign policy and defense advisers simultaneously consult for military contractors. The U.S. already spends more on the military than the next seven nations combined, including Russia and China.
- Expanding Government Surveillance: Rubio has been an outspoken proponent of mass surveillance, even arguing for a permanent extension of the National Security Agency’s collection of domestic phone records. After being elected to the Senate, Rubio began fundraising from lobbyists for the private contractors that serve the NSA, including Leidos, as well as from the Carlyle Group, the major investor in Booz Allen Hamilton.
When he served in the Florida legislature, Rubio simultaneously worked as a lobbyist for a number of private interests — so if he’s elected, he will be the first president to have worked as a registered lobbyist.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz attacked Rubio during Thursday night’s Fox News debate for flip-flopping — from opposing “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, to supporting it. “Marco made the choice to go the direction of the major donors — to support amnesty because he thought it was politically advantageous,” Cruz said.
“Rubio’s votes on a wide range of issues may demonstrate that he votes in favor of positions that benefit his donors, but are not necessarily consistent with his conservative campaign rhetoric,” says Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson. For “voters who pay attention,” she adds, “this is disheartening and dispiriting.”