In the not-so-distant past, both candidates in the 2012 Massachusetts U.S. Senate race embraced a “People’s Pledge” to avoid political spending by outside groups. The pledge increased the influence of smaller donor donations and reduced negative advertising. That was a bright spot for campaign finance reform. Yet, much remains to be done at the state and national level to stay the influence of secret money in politics.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could pass a rule to require publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending to their shareholders — the first important step toward greater transparency. Unfortunately, despite support for the rule from investors managing assets worth some $700 billion, and more than 700,000 supportive comments for the rule (a record for the SEC), Chairperson Mary Jo White recently caved to special interests and changed the SEC’s agenda to exclude it. That’s a gigantic step back, at a time when we need that transparency more than ever.
More than $6 billion was spent on last year’s elections nationwide, over double the amount spent in 2000. This trend has been driven by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC to so-called independent groups. It may worsen if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiff in McCutcheon v. FEC, who seeks to lift the aggregate limit on individual giving.
Happily, majorities across party lines also agree on a critical solution to the problem: mandating greater transparency to get a handle on money in politics. A recent poll of likely American voters commissioned by Represent.us found that 91 percent of respondents believe it is important for their elected leaders to “reduce the influence of money in political elections.”
If the SEC won’t listen to everyday Americans, perhaps it will listen to corporate America. A growing number of corporations now agree that secret corporate political spending is bad for business and are leading the way. Half of S&P 100 companies make their political contributions transparent and require their directors to oversee the process, including locally headquartered EMC Corporation and Boston Scientific. In addition, three-quarters of business executives polled by the Corporate Reform Coalition support the SEC rule to require corporations to disclose their political spending.
These corporations understand that transparency and oversight act as a necessary counterbalance to the inherent legal, reputation and brand risks that come with involvement in the political process. Shareholder proposals have been an important driver of enhanced transparency and oversight.
Massachusetts can also take action to close our state’s own loopholes. The Massachusetts Disclosure Act, sponsored by Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord, and Sen. James B. Eldridge, D-Acton, would require corporations, unions and other groups to disclose their political spending within days, including contributions to intermediary groups.
Nearly four years after Citizens United, shareholders and citizens are still largely in the dark, aware that secret money flows rig the game but unable to hold the givers and recipients truly accountable. It’s time for the government to take action and put disclosure back on the agenda.
Shelley Alpern is director of Social Research and Shareholder Advocacy at Clean Yield Asset Management of Norwich, Vt., and a board director of the Center for Political Accountability. She lives in Salem.