Tis the Season for Corporate Giving

The SEC released a list of its priorities for 2014 and there’s one glaring omission.

The SEC dropped the proposal to regulate “dark money” aka undisclosed campaign cash.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the door to unlimited spending by corporations and unions on political activities as long as the money was independent from candidates and political parties. Moreover, corporate contributions can go undisclosed if they are given to trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or nonprofits like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.

A loose coalition of civic society groups, shareholder activists, Democratic elected officials, and pension funds spent a good part of 2013 pushing the SEC to require publicly-traded corporations to reveal political donations to their shareholders, which would shed light on all the dark money transforming campaign spending.

But the SEC decided not to go down that road.

“We’re incredibly disappointed by this, and we need an explanation for why they removed the most widely supported regulation in their docket,” Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, told The Huffington Post.

So corporations can continue to spend lavishly on campaigns and not tell their shareholders about it.

The proposal received more than a half million comments, mostly in favor of political disclosure.

Not surprisingly, the idea was fiercely fought by powerful trade associations (and dark money funnels) such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Manufacturers Association, and the Business Roundtable.

These business groups, along with other tax-exempt organizations, spent hundreds of millions of dollars during the 2012 elections, but they did not have to reveal their donors.

Why all the secrecy? Companies, it seems, feared offending their customers or their shareholders or even the lawmakers they targeted for defeat.

This leaves us in a very vulnerable position: There’s unprecedented corporate election spending, but no disclosure laws.

“It is an uphill battle to get disclosure in dark money. We saw an opening with the SEC and that door seemed to have been open reasonably wide,” Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant to the Sunlight Foundation, told Al Jazeera America. “Now it’s closed a little bit, and it’s very disappointing because there’s so much resistance to disclosure in general that is coming from a small number of donors.”

That small number of donors understands that untraceable moolah is the gift that keeps on giving.
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Photo: Flickr creative commons.