After months of negotiations Congress finally passed the massive omnibus spending bill last week, and on the whole, the final bill ended up being free of some very bad proposed provisions that would have harmed our environment, weakened worker protections, and upended our campaign finance system.
A few troublesome riders did slip through that impact our democracy, though, so let’s review.
As the federal spending bills were being drafted for FY18, Conservatives in Congress inserted 5 poison pill riders that had the potential to unleash the worst attack on our democracy since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
The package of anti- democracy poison pills that were included in draft bills would have:
The provisions that actually passed:
The final bill that passed did not include two of these poison pills and also maintained an earlier version of the rider that stops the Securities and Exchange Commission from finalizing the political spending disclosure rulemaking, but allows the agency to still work on the rule. This is a win because recently confirmed Democratic SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson, Jr. is an original author of the disclosure rulemaking petition and should not have his hands tied on this issue.
As a refresher, it is critical to the function of our democracy that companies not be allowed to funnel money into our elections in secret. In order to make an informed decision, voters need to know who is funding the political messages they are seeing, whether it’s a foreign entity, a billionaire, or a company looking to rig the rules in its favor. The threat of foreign influence in our elections is particularly troubling, especially given Russia’s interest in sowing chaos in America’s political system. It’s technically illegal for a foreign entity to spend money in U.S. elections, but given the gaping loopholes in our current campaign finance law, it’s easier than ever for an adversary to funnel money into our elections. Bad corporate actors and industry trade associations looking to gain an upper hand can also secretly influence political messages, tricking voters into thinking that a political message has strong public support when in fact a special interest is paying to convince voters of the merit of its cause. This is why we need strong transparency laws that ensure voters know exactly who is funding our politics.
Being transparent is also good for business. If a company chooses to engage in the policy making process for the sake of their business there should be no reason why they would want to hide that critical information from their shareholders and customers. Additionally, having a strong oversight policy helps a company shield against a politician’s shakedown. In the face of a politician offering special access or corporate- friendly policies in exchange for secret support for the politician’s or party’s agenda, an executive can cite the company’s policy of disclosing its political activity and sidestep any unsavory dealings.
There is already significant investor demand for political transparency from companies. For years, shareholders have been filing resolutions at major companies asking them to disclose their election spending and lobbying. This year, shareholders have filed about 80 resolutions asking companies to be honest about their engagement in politics.
While the fight over this year’s omnibus spending bill is over, there is little time for rest as negotiations around the bill for 2019 will start up soon, and Conservatives are likely to continue to use the inappropriate tactic of inserting major policy provisions into the bill in order to pass them under the radar. It is critical that language preventing the SEC from finalizing the corporate political spending disclosure rulemaking come out of the next bill so that the agency can finish this critical transparency measure.