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Reining In Corporate $$, The Back Door Approach

I’m a day late to this, but I wanted to be sure to draw attention to an important article by Tom Hamburger and Brady Dennis that ran too far inside Tuesday’s Washington Post: looking at the gathering movement to rein in campaign contributions by corporations by coaxing them to disclose more of their political spending. I’ve written often in this space about the threat of undisclosed spending via groups like Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-founded group that does not need to disclose its donors because it is technically considered a group focused on “social policy” advocacy rather than a purely election-minded one, even if it is now spending millions of dollars leading the attack on Barack Obama. Since the Supreme Court apparently considers this hunky-dory, since reform efforts in Congress are going nowhere since and the FEC is as feckless as ever, reformers have decided that their best hope for trying to rein in secret spending is to straight to corporations. As The Post reports:

One of the most polarizing fights over money in politics has been unfolding this spring at annual corporate meetings, where shareholders are mounting an intensifying effort to push companies to disclose the money they spend on lobbying and political campaigns. The transparency push, playing out at shareholders meetings from coast to coast this spring, has received cheers from campaign finance reformers and some corporate governance experts. It has drawn ridicule from critics such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who see the effort as an attempt by liberal groups to squelch the voice of the business world....
For years, socially active shareholder groups — a universe that includes public pension funds, unions and religious environmental groups — have pushed companies to disclose details about their political spending. But the number of those proposals and support for them among established institutional investors have been on the rise. The Sustainable Investments Institute, a Washington nonprofit that tracks shareholder resolutions, found that 109 — nearly a third of those up for votes at annual meetings in 2012 — sought more disclosures about spending on politics and lobbying....
To date, 101 major companies have agreed to disclosure and board oversight of some of their political spending, according to Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, which rates companies on the issue. Freed and others argue that disclosure can help executives and directors avoid reputational risk to their firms.
In recent months, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Intuit and other firms have faced pressure after revelations that they had supported a business advocacy group that championed “stand your ground” gun legislation, which gained notoriety after the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. A national campaign has led a dozen companies to announce they will not renew their membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Wal-Mart, the giant retailer under fire for allegedly bribing Mexican officials, encountered another wave of vitriol when it was reported that the company also was a member of ALEC.

The business lobby is of course howling about this push—“This is all about intimidation,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue told reporters at a Chamber breakfast on Monday. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has been railing against the disclosure movement, and has taken comfort in the fact that the shareholder resolutions are generally falling well short of a majority. But the reformers are still optimistic, the Post reports:

But passing the measures is not necessarily the point, advocates say. The main goal is to pressure companies to increase their disclosures, especially with the lack of action on Capitol Hill and within federal agencies. “The ball has been tossed into the laps of shareholders and corporations,” said Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who advised Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on campaign finance and other issues during his presidential bid. [And the campaign finance expert who’s been making regular appearances on the Colbert Report “advising” Colbert on his presidential campaign.]
Last week, Potter helped lead a conference on disclosure issues that brought together business executives, corporate governance experts and activists for sessions with titles such as: “The battle over corporate political activity: Left wing plot, good governance, or both?” In attendance was Dan Bross, Microsoft’s senior director of corporate citizenship, who has seen his company’s approach to political disclosure evolve.
In 2000, the software giant made payments to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce to run campaign ads, under the Chamber banner, helping one of Microsoft’s allies on Capitol Hill, then-Sen. Spencer Abraham (R). When it was revealed that Microsoft had paid $250,000 to help Abraham, the company and the candidate encountered stiff criticism. Microsoft now discloses its political and lobbying expenditures on its Web site, including dues to trade associations and a breakdown of the political spending by those groups. Bross has emerged as a leader in efforts to encourage other firms to adopt more expansive disclosure practices.
“As a company, we believe in openness, transparency and accountability,” Bross said. “We are doing what we believe is right.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that this push for corporate transparency does nothing to spur disclosure by the wealthy individuals and privately owned companies that are also giving to groups like Crossroads GPS (which has raised double as much as American Crossroads, the explicitly election-focused sister group that does have to disclose its donors.) Spurring more disclosure by individual donors is the goal of a separate but related fledgling effort by some state treasurers to coax big money managers to disclose their personal giving as a condition of handling huge state pension fund investments.

But the momentum toward encouraging disclosure from corporations is as good as any place to start when the other avenues are blocked. And if Tom Donohue is declaiming against it over breakfast, then it must be working somewhat better than the Journal’s triumphal editorial suggested.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis