A small step for political transparency
This newsletter spends a lot of time reporting on corporate political spending. Corporations are extremely powerful entities and how they spend their political dollars matters. But the reality is that, in the United States, corporations are able to keep much of their political spending secret.
For example, Popular Information recently reported on the top corporate donors to the sponsors of Texas' extreme abortion ban. But how much did these corporations contribute to Heritage Action, a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization that supports politicians pushing abortion bans? Corporations can keep that secret.
Earlier this year, Popular Information exposed the corporate donors to the sponsors of voter suppression legislation in Georgia, Texas, Arizona, and Florida. But how much money did these corporations send to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is fighting federal legislation to protect voting rights? Corporations can keep that secret.
In response to pressure from advocates, some corporations have begun to voluntarily disclose more political spending. Still, among companies listed in S&P 500, only 18% fully disclose their contributions to 501(c)(4) advocacy groups, only 24% fully disclose their contributions to trade associations, and only 30% fully disclose their donations to 527 political organizations. Data from the Center for Political Accountability:
There is a better way. The SEC could require public companies to disclose all of their political spending. A decade ago, the SEC began the process of creating a rule that would require full disclosure of political spending. In 2013, however, President Obama nominated Mary Jo White to be chair of the SEC. White said that she opposed creating disclosure rules that "appeared more directed at exerting societal pressures on companies to change their behavior rather than at disclosing financial information to inform investment decisions." The effort was brought to a halt.
Then, in 2015, Republicans took control of the House and Senate and attached a rider to the federal budget preventing the SEC from using any funds to finalize a rule around political disclosure. It's been added to every budget since. The most recent rider, passed in December 2020, says the following:
None of the funds made available by this Act shall be used by the Securities and Exchange Commission to finalize, issue, or implement any rule, regulation, or order regarding the disclosure of political contributions, contributions to tax exempt organizations, or dues paid to trade associations.
But now things are changing. Yesterday, the Senate released its draft of the appropriations bill that funds the SEC and the rider was removed. The House version of the bill was released earlier and also removed the provision.
This would clear the way for the SEC to begin working on the disclosure rule in 2022, after the bill is passed. It could usher in a new era of greater transparency in corporate political spending.
But change has not come yet. It's likely that most appropriations bills, including the one funding the SEC, will be consolidated into an "omnibus" bill in December. This presents an opportunity for corporate lobbyists and others that benefit from secret corporate political spending to push to reinsert the rider.
Censoring corporate criticism
Last week, a Democratic Super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, attempted to place a television ad in three Florida markets highlighting donations from Comcast, Disney, and AT&T to anti-abortion legislators.
But the ad was rejected by local cable providers. The Tampa Bay Tribune has the story:
The Democratic group was already running digital ads about abortion in Florida. But last week, they planned to run the cable spot in Tallahassee, Tampa and Orlando as part of its “Corporate Accountability Action” project. On Friday, the group was told local cable providers had declined to run it. The activists had tried to place the commercial via the interconnect, a process that allows advertisers to make one purchase with a large cable company to reach the subscribers of multiple providers. In Tallahassee, Comcast was the company that declined to air the ads for the market. In Tampa and Orlando, Spectrum said no.
Comcast claimed the ad violated its policy on "personal attacks." The ad, of course, was not personal but reflected an important policy concern. Spectrum said the ad violated its policies without elaborating.
Earlier this month, the same Super PAC was blocked from running digital ads on the Dallas Morning News that criticized AT&T for supporting sponsors of Texas' abortion ban.
It appears there are two sets of rules. Corporations are able to spend unlimited sums on TV and online to burnish their image. But critics of corporate power are not given access to the same platforms.
After Abbott signs Texas abortion ban, Walmart sends him $10,000 check
Walmart was not one of the largest donors to the sponsors of Texas' abortion ban. But one week after Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX) signed the legislation, Walmart made a $10,000 donation to Abbott's reelection campaign.
Walmart offered this unintentionally revealing response to CNBC, which broke the news of the donation:
We have not been and will never be a single-issue contributor, and we recognize that at times elected officials will back legislation we don’t support or condone. However, it’s important that we continue to engage in the political process and make our views known to policymakers and other stakeholders.
Walmart said the donation was part of its efforts to "make our views known to policymakers." The implication is that, without sending Abbott cash, it would be more difficult for the company to communicate its views to Abbott. Where does that leave the overwhelming majority of Texans who don't have $10,000 to donate to Abbott?