The SEC’s Teeth
Like lots of Americans, I don’t really think of myself as an investor, but I am.
I’m an investor because I have a 401(k)-type retirement account. Which means that some significant part of my financial future depends, for better or for worse, on corporate profits, stock performance, and other creatures of the market.
Because I’m an investor, it’s the job of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to look out for my interests, whether or not I am aware of it. About 50 percent of U.S. households are investors of some kind or another. Some are the day-trading aficionados who follow the market as tenaciously as my father-in-law tracks his fantasy football team. Some are like me – we’re investors because that’s the kind of retirement account we were offered for our jobs.
Either way, the SEC is the agency that’s supposed to prevent corporate malefactors from abusing the money we shareholders invest in them. By law, that basically means that these corporations are required to spend shareholder money in ways that will increase profits – profits that are supposed to, among other things, boost my retirement account, since that’s where the money came from. The good folks from Occupy the SEC have a good primer on what it does, from an activist perspective.
Then, about two years ago, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission happened – and a brave new world of ways to spend investor money to influence elections was opened up.
The fact that the SEC looks out for shareholder interests is actually a big part of why Citizens United came down the way it did. Consider the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion in that ruling:
With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions. […] Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are in the pocket of so-called moneyed interests.
But Justice Kennedy was wrong. Congress has failed so far to pass laws requiring corporations to disclose their political spending or to require shareholder approval of corporate political activity. The Internet, instead of providing a wealth of information to hold politically active corporations accountable, is increasingly where we see political ads funded by anonymous corporate interests.
Because of Citizens United, my family’s nest egg has become a political weapon for the corporate agenda. I have no way of knowing whether my money is being used to make attack ads for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or Karl Rove’s American Crossroads GPS.
Here’s where the SEC has the authority to step in.
Analysis by Public Citizen’s Taylor Lincoln and Harvard Law School’s John Coates, Ph.D., found that companies that disclose their electioneering activities tend to bring higher returns on investments to shareholders than companies that do note disclose their political activities. For shareholders who are exclusively interested in protecting their investments, this correlation suggests that requiring corporations to be transparent about their political activities would not harm these investments.
The SEC also should empower shareholders to have a say whether and how corporations spend their money in elections. If a majority of shareholders do not support corporate political spending, then that company should not spend its money in politics.
Getting the SEC to step in and police corporate political activity would be a tremendous victory, but the agency isn’t going to act without pressure. Already, legal scholars and other experts have started weighing in with the SEC on how it could do this work. We at Public Citizen have convened the Corporate Reform Coalition, a diverse group of more than 70 different organizations working together to compel the SEC to act. Soon, we’ll need help from activists all over the country to help us convince the SEC that, because of Citizens United, cracking down on corporate political activity is now part of its job.
We’re also fighting for constitutional amendment to fully upend the Supreme Court’s perverse Citizens United ruling. Combating corporate influence in elections promises to be a long, arduous campaign over the next several years, and we’re committed to doing everything it takes to end corporate domination and put people back in charge of our government.
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December 19, 2011 @ 7:11 pm
Rich, thanks for your great blog post and the many great links, especially the one to “Occupy the SEC”.
I will be back to read more of your great material facts.
December 19, 2011 @ 7:18 pm
Rick: You could have gone further and reached a lot more people. The only people that are not affected by the SEC are people that have no savings, no retirement plan, no bank account, and no money period. Every 401K, SEP, IRA(regular or Roth), Social Security, Annuity, Pension, Savings account, Checking account…in short anyone who is hoping their money is safe and or growing is affected by the SEC. Even if you don’t have money the SEC controls the price of the necessities, like food and fuel, that we need to live. So really no one is unaffected. You wrote an important piece. You should see that every Senator and House member gets a copy. And of course the President and his Press Secretary. Good on you. Thanks
Alvin D Hofer
December 19, 2011 @ 8:04 pm
I am not an attorney, certainly not one able to determine the limits of SEC power. As an observer, the Commission sets its own limits far more narrowly than Congress intended. For example, it did nothing to interfere with the gambling on CDOs. It did nothing to make those instruments comprehensible to those investing in them, including most bank executives. There are many other examples, to be sure!
Your idea may be wonderful, but regrettably our official, elected and appointed, are members of the ruling class or its servants. Like many good ideas, there adoption would be revolutionary! I don’t see it in my lifetime.
July 30, 2012 @ 1:26 am
@ Alvin D. Hofer When will you admit your wrongs and make recompense?
arthur f. meincke
December 19, 2011 @ 8:15 pm
excellent article: well written and accurate!
L K Snider
December 19, 2011 @ 8:58 pm
Now this is something we should all get behind. With the ever shrinking value of many 401K and IRA accounts, the “ownership society” is nearing bankruptcy, while corporate CEOs and bankers laugh all the way to bank. And it’s not like we have other options, with Bank CDs and savings accounts paying next to nothing in interest. Time to fight the fight on every front, and put the power back in the hands of those who work for their paychecks.
December 19, 2011 @ 10:25 pm
Give the rest of US something that we can actually do to help US turn this situation around.
John P. Choice
December 20, 2011 @ 1:16 am
All organizations like yourselves, Move on, etc, should acquire the names, address (home/business) and phone numbers of members related to or working for the US Chamber of Commerce and others who are working very hard to cripple the 99% in this country.
We could then blitz them via phone calls or direct public confrontation and DEMAND that they take another path or else! We can then use all the news organizations, paper, magazines and create public forums on television to blacken their names and expose their activities.
We, the American public need to pay more attention to what is really going on in this country but I constantly discover people who ignore what is going on, some who feel that they will somehow suffer financially, socially or politically! Somehow this “ignorance” has to cease!
Respectfully, John P. Choice …..
Securities and Exchange Commission has the authority to rein in corporate political spending? « Eslkevin's Blog
December 20, 2011 @ 3:25 am
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December 20, 2011 @ 10:51 am
when you say “Shareholders”, who do you think they are? I sponsored a Shareholder Proxy at a shareholder meeting. What I discovered is that 60% of the shares held for vote were Institutions like State Street and then the Executives were major shareholders.
The voting rules said “If no shares were cast, the “non-cast” shares would support the Board of Directors opinion”. Well, out of a Billion or so shares, the Board won.
However, when it came to executive compensation, expense to the institutions, the share holder vote was very high.
Presently, the boards of Corporations do NOT allow any shareholder to run for the board, they are all “CEO cronies”.
So when I hear a CEO justify laying off in the USA and hiring overseas as a responsiblity to the “Shareholder”. Since he gets paid 90% in stock, taxed at 15%, and 60% are institutional stock holders (we probably get a little boost with our 401K mutual funds) but only 20% of the country are rewarded as “shareholders” and the 80% be damned.
150 million people, I guess 80 million families paid no Federal Income Taxes according to the Republicans, which tells me, they are not making enough money to pay taxes, aka near Poverty thanks to “Trickle Down” and depressed wages of 30 years and huge medical costs, not to leave out the Financial Scams preyed on them by the banks and Wall Street.
The problems are not simple, it took three decades to get us where we are, the American People are nothing more than pawns or slaves for the benefit of the Rich who fleece them in so many ways financially, from their desks in New York with a Computer.
December 20, 2011 @ 1:41 pm
I am 100% with you in your efforts to hold the people who manage our money accountable. I do not want my money used to promote a right wing agenda, much less to be used for political purposes.
Thanks for your work.
December 20, 2011 @ 4:05 pm
I was just wondering how the Supreme Court could have ruled on such a law! It’s obsurd and thank-you for some more information. This is exactly why I did not open a 401K plan at my current job! TOO bad too, cause I should, BUT I don’t want that money gambled or used for something I don’t believe in!! I hope we can overturn this ruling! It seems unconstitutional to me! Money should NOT have anything to do with how people are elected or how a bill is passed, etc. It should be based on morals, values and the greater good of ALL!! SHAME ON these BUSH appointed Judges!! I am NOT surprised!!!!!!!!!!!! BUSH was the MOST horrible President and has done tremendous damage to this country! He should be kicked out and sent to Iraq as a “Peace Keeper”!!!!
December 21, 2011 @ 2:07 am
Big banks and corporations can not be trusted any longer. They had their way since Reagan’s administration (half my life’s time). The economy could have been a lot worse if not for small business and credit unions and those corporations and banks that did not need a bailout. The only quaranty for the steps in the right direction will be from the average hard working American citizens. The steps being; living within your means, use credit unions not banks, no cheating on income taxes, and shop small businesses. The federal and local governments can help by having fixed tax rates: Fed 6%, State 3%, City 1% = 10% total of every dollar earned from every working person and business entity. Finally, do away with the IRS and the credit bureaus. If big business can get a fresh start using the tax payers’ dollars then the taxpayers should get a fresh start.
December 21, 2011 @ 4:12 pm
Why has it taken this long for anyone to realize that the SEC could have, at any time, stopped corporate political contributions?