Make elections transparent

Corporations should have to disclose political spending

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Corporations are people," Gov. Mitt Romney said in response to an activist protesting the Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United ruling during his presidential campaign.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has not given the ruling a similarly full-throated endorsement, but, with the gubernatorial election just a year away, there should be no doubt that he and his fellow contenders are weighing the potential impact of secret corporate money on their candidacies.

When the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United ruling in 2010, you might remember, it eliminated limits on "independent expenditures," allowing corporations, labor unions and anyone else to spend as much as they want toward electing or defeating candidates for political office so long as that spending is not coordinated with the candidates or their campaigns.

But labor unions still must disclose political spending to the Department of Labor while corporations report to no one -- not even their owners. Not only is their spending now limitless, it also can be done in secret thanks to loopholes that allow them to funnel money through groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

That's where the Securities and Exchange Commission comes in.

Today, academics and lawmakers are gathering on Capitol Hill to support a petition filed with the SEC by a bipartisan group calling for publicly traded corporations to disclose political spending to shareholders. More than 600,000 investors and activists have echoed their support.

Disclosure of corporate political spending is vital not only for our democracy, but also for shareholders, who, as the owners of publicly traded corporations have the right to know if the corporations in which they invest are supporting political candidates. It would be absurd for a small business owner not to know if his company is helping to elect politicians. The same holds true for shareholders.

The SEC commissioners could adopt such a rule before next year's elections. This would allow Pennsylvanians to know which corporations are trying to get which key federal, state and local officials elected. Whether a corporation is a part of the fracking industry or the ketchup industry, knowing who is spending money on behalf of candidates would empower voters to make more informed decisions. Investors also would be able to make more informed decisions about where to put their hard-earned dollars.

One gubernatorial candidate has taken a stand on the proposed SEC rule. Treasurer Rob McCord, who in September announced his candidacy, said in support of the rule last year that "we have an obligation to ensure tax dollars invested in publicly traded corporations generate positive returns for the commonwealth and are not spent on political campaigns."

If other candidates want to show they value transparency and an informed electorate, they will join Mr. McCord not only in endorsing the rule, but also in publicly urging the SEC to adopt the rule before Election Day 2014.

Rick Claypool works for Public Citizen, a public interest advocacy nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. He lives in Forest Hills.

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