LAT Surveys “Parallel, Opaque System of Political Giving”

If companies don’t disclose, nobody knows

A tip of the hat to the Los Angeles Times for spending six months surveying the political spending disclosure practices of the seventy-five largest publicly traded energy, healthcare, and financial service companies and then rating them, spreadsheet-style, on transparency (methodology explained here). It should not startle you to learn that “only a few” of these companies fully disclose their political spending—that is, divulge anything more than what the law requires—leaving the public with an incomplete view of how companies seek to influence the political process (including through giving to trade associations and 501(c)(4) groups).

From the Times’s report, published over the weekend:

While complying with legal requirements to report direct donations to candidates, the vast majority of these companies — many of which are seeking legislative favors from the new Congress — do not reveal information even to their shareholders about support for politically active trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Groups such as the chamber, some of which spend millions of dollars on elections, are not required to reveal their financial supporters. And companies are not required to report their donations to those groups.

The money fuels a parallel, opaque system of political giving that plays a growing role in national elections and is emerging as a 2012 campaign issue. President Obama is considering an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose political donations [Politico has more on that], and congressional Democrats have filed a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission demanding more disclosure [NYT has more on that].

What information is publicly available suggests that substantial corporate political spending remains in the dark, leading to an incomplete, and at times misleading, picture of companies’ efforts to influence legislation and elections, the Times review indicates.

The Times calls Prudential, for one, “one of the most transparent companies about its political giving,” in that it posts on its website “giving to trade groups and other tax-exempt groups that receive more than $50,000 in dues or contributions.” On the other end of the spectrum is, for example, Berkshire Hathaway, which makes no political spending disclosures on its website and declined to talk to the Times about it. (“There’s no interest,” said spokeswoman Carrie Kizer. Points for honesty, I guess.)

Why might you have an “interest” in the “much corporate political spending” that “stays hidden” from your eyes? Well for one, as the Times notes, “unregulated political spending is expected to play an even larger role in next year’s presidential campaign.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR. Tags: , , , ,