Thousands Petition SEC To Disclose Corporate Political Spending

Nearly 500,000 people have petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission to make publicly-traded corporations disclose their political spending. The question is: How much clout do 500,000 people actually have?

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. Mary Jo White took office this week as the new chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC is under pressure. It still hasn't finished its regulations to carry out the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, which was signed three years ago. Now, nearly half a million people are asking the commission to take up something else entirely: mandatory disclosure of the money that corporations spend on politics.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: This story begins with Citizens United, the Supreme Court case from 2010, the one that makes it possible for companies to spend corporate funds on partisan politics. The court explicitly endorsed disclosure of that corporate spending to citizens and shareholders, but no law requires that. After Congress rejected a disclosure bill, some corporate and securities law professors got to thinking...

LUCIAN BEBCHUK: We thought about the issues and concluded that the case for an SEC ruling requiring disclosure is very strong.

OVERBY: Harvard law professor Lucian Bebchuk is one of 10 professors who petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission to take action. That's something anyone can do. They say investors have a right to know when a corporation puts their money into politics.

BEBCHUK: We've seen that the lack of transparency in this area is inconsistent with the basic principles of corporate governance and also with the goals of transparency to investors.

OVERBY: Disclosure advocates have been pushing on other fronts, including proxy fights at corporate meetings, and they jumped on the petition. The SEC invites comments on petitions. A coalition of more than 100 liberal groups and institutional investor firms publicized the effort, put sample messages on the web and generated nearly 500,000 comments so far.

It's a record at the commission. Commenters include members of Congress and state finance officers, wealthy investors and ordinary people.

LISA GILBERT: This is a historic decision-making moment from Mary Jo White.

OVERBY: Lisa Gilbert is director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch program and a strategist for the petition drive.

GILBERT: She has the opportunity to set the tone of her new tenure as chair or not.

OVERBY: Among the leading opponents are the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber raised and spent more than $35 million during last year's campaigns. In January, it led a coalition in filing comments against the disclosure petition. Lawyer lobbyist Andrew Pincus helped write the comments. He says the SEC should deal with congressional mandates.

ANDREW PINCUS: If you look at the agenda, there are a number of things - I think more than a dozen rule-makings from the Dodd-Frank Act and the Jobs Act - that are now either overdue or close to overdue and haven't even been started.

OVERBY: It's worth asking how much money corporations actually spend on politics. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says that for the 2012 elections, the absolute minimum was $55 million. Pincus says investors have no need or right to know anything about that.

PINCUS: Corporations are not Athenian democracies. That's not our structure.

OVERBY: And he scoffs at the comment-writing campaign for the petition.

PINCUS: It's Washington, you know? It got a half million form letters, what people in Washington would call a grass tops or Astroturf campaign.

LIZ KENNEDY: This, I would characterize as a legitimate grassroots campaign.

OVERBY: Liz Kennedy is a lawyer at Demos, a group in the liberal coalition.

KENNEDY: I mean, rarely does anything happen without any type of organizing.

OVERBY: It's hard to tell what the SEC might do. The agency put the petition on a long-term agenda but hasn't scheduled any hearings. The official word is that the staff is considering whether to recommend a proposal. Chairwoman White hasn't taken a position. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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