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The percentage of undisclosed money in the political system went up during last year's midterm elections. The reason is a dramatic increase in advertising by anonymously funded freelance organizations, groups such as the American Action Fund and Citizens for Strength and Security.
Much of the money is thought to come from corporations. And now, as NPR's Peter Overby reports, proponents of transparency are winning disclosure battles one corporation at a time.
PETER OVERBY: Here's just one example of what disclosure means. The Chevron Corporation voluntarily revealed that last year, it gave a half million dollars to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber was one of the top advertisers in last year's campaigns. It ran ads like this one, hammering Democratic Senator Michael Bennet in Colorado.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Man: Michael Bennet voted for Obamacare, driving up costs, limiting access to doctors.
OVERBY: There's no way to know through disclosure if Chevron's money specifically helped to pay for those ads. The U.S. Chamber fights hard to keep its donors secret, so without Chevron's online publication of its political contributions, we wouldn't know anything about its link to the Chamber.
Chevron is among nearly 50 S&P 100 companies that, along with 30 other corporations, now disclose their political spending. It's the result of a quiet, eight-year campaign fought not in Washington but in boardrooms and shareholder meetings around the country. We're coming into the annual busy season for this effort.
In the spring, many corporations hold their shareholder meetings. That's after months of activist campaigns to make changes in corporate operations.
Mr. BRUCE FREED (President, Center for Political Accountability): We're asking companies to disclose and account for their political spending with corporate funds.
OVERBY: That's Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability. He's a leader of the effort for disclosure and other corporate policies regarding political money. Freed says the center starts by asking a company to consider changes. Sometimes, that's all it takes.
Mr. FREED: Companies in many cases would like to dispose of these issues before them, so they won't be on the proxy statement. They won't - shareholders will not be voting on it.
OVERBY: And when these proposals do come to a vote, Freed says, at first, they would get an average percentage of 9 percent yes votes. Now, the average is around 30 percent. That might sound like a loser in campaign politics, but in a shareholders' meeting, Freed says, it's a big vote.
Mr. FREED: And a very strong signal to management that this is an issue that needs to be addressed by the company.
OVERBY: Many social investment funds like these proposals, so do some of the big pension funds, even some mainline mutual funds, including Fidelity, Oppenheimer and Schwab.
Legislation to mandate this kind of disclosure failed to pass Congress last year. But here's the odd thing: Corporations don't seem all that engaged in the debate.
Stephen Bainbridge teaches corporate law at UCLA law school. He says most of corporate America isn't all that eager to get into politics.
Professor STEPHEN BAINBRIDGE (School of Law, UCLA): I think that there have been situations in which some of the Chamber's donors have been reluctant to be publicly doing battle with the Obama administration. But at the same time, I think we have not seen the floodgates open.
OVERBY: Bainbridge says top management is worried about bigger things - say on pay, for instance, which would give shareholders the power to control executive compensation. So when it comes to a shareholder proposal for disclosure...
Prof. BAINBRIDGE: I think most corporations don't perceive this sort of disclosure as being particularly problematic.
OVERBY: So when shareholders start calling for changes, he says, keeping political money secret often seems like a battle that's not worth fighting.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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