Budget 'rider' would protect secret money in elections

House Republicans are protecting the ability of corporations to secretly influence elections and government.

There are few policies less popular than protecting the ability of corporations to secretly influence our elections and government.

And yet that is exactly what Republicans in the House of Representatives are trying to do. Recently, the House Appropriations Committee snuck a provision into a funding bill that would prevent the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from moving forward on a rule to require disclosure of corporate money in elections.

President Barack Obama should heed the advice of the 47 Democrats, led by Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who last month signed a letter urging the president to "veto this bill… if these legislative restrictions on transparency are not removed."

Ideological bill "riders" like the one in this year's spending bill are bad policy and also do not belong in the budget process. It is inappropriate to tie the funding of critical government functions to an unrelated issue important to the health of our democracy.

Shareholders should not be left in the dark when companies spend their money to influence a political cause that they may not support and which may cause them harm. Information on political spending is material to shareholders as they make decisions about where to invest, particularly with growing evidence that political spending might not always benefit the corporate bottom line. This legislation instead would keep corporate political spending in the dark.

Since Citizens United, groups that did not have to disclose their corporate donors have spent more than $600 million trying to sway federal elections. If the trend continues, the amount of this dark money will reach new heights in the 2016 election cycle.

A widely popular petition calling for the SEC to promulgate a rule requiring disclosure of corporate political spending would fix part of the dark money problem. The demand for the rule has been robust and diverse. Individuals have filed more than 1.2 million public comments in support, including comments from a bipartisan group of former chairs and commissioners of the SEC, state treasurers, institutional investors, members of Congress and more.

Moreover, shareholder resolutions filed at public companies requesting disclosure of all corporate efforts to influence elections have ballooned since the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision gave corporations greater freedom to spend money in elections. Between 2010 and 2014, shareholders have filed 530 resolutions on corporate political activity. At more than 100 meetings this spring, shareholders ratcheted up the pressure on corporations to disclose information about corporate lobbying and electioneering expenditures so investors can make informed investment choices.

The public at large almost universally agrees that corporations should have to publicly disclose the money they spend to influence our elections and government. The idea is as uncontroversial as apple pie. A recent New York Times/CBS poll found three out of four Americans support more disclosure of money in elections, and the level of support is consistent among Democrats, Republicans and independents alike.

The 30 Republicans who voted along party lines to block the SEC rule are not only wildly out of touch with the vast majority of Americans who support disclosure; they are also wildly out of touch with many of their counterparts in state capitols around the country. From Maine to Montana, Republican state legislators are moving in the opposite direction of Republicans in Congress by championing legislation to increase transparency of money in elections. Washington, D.C., really is the only place where people pretend reducing corporate influence on our government is a partisan issue.

If House Republicans move forward with this unpopular attempt to block our right to know the special interests influencing our elected leaders, President Obama may be the last line of defense. He must listen to his party members in Congress and make clear that he will not sign any bill, whether this one or an omnibus spending bill if the appropriations process falls apart as is often the case, that prevents the SEC from increasing disclosure of corporate political spending.

In the meantime, the SEC should get to work actually issuing the rule. Five years after the Supreme Court's strong endorsement of disclosure in Citizens United, there is still no requirement that companies inform shareholders and the public of their political expenditures.

The agency has a mandate to protect investors and should move quickly to comply with the Supreme Court's advice to "provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters."

Lisa Gilbert is director of the Corporate Reform Coalition and Public Citizen's Congress Watch Division. Her email is lgilbert@citizen.org.

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