Follow the Money

Multiple crises over the past year reminded us that our global economy and our democracies are unjust and fragile. With decades of lobbying and political spending, companies have contributed to the breakdown of trust in the system by distorting elections, policymaking, law enforcement, and citizens’ ability to hold power to account.

Why do industries like meatpacking enjoy little oversight under both Democrat and Republican administrations? A recent report from the nonprofit advocacy group Feed the Truth suggests a disquieting answer. The report documents how the largest companies in the U.S. food system invest a significant sum in lobbying and campaign donations, all but guaranteeing a friendlier regulatory environment.

Corporate political spending and lobbying are possibly the major factors obstructing progress on critical policy issues including the climate crisis, corporate tax loopholes, fossil fuel subsidies, pharmaceutical pricing, minimum wage, worker rights, and youth tobacco use. Companies impede legislators and regulators from acting on evidence and for the common good. The 2010 Citizens United court ruling only exasperated corporate political influence.

Investors try to address this. For example, SGI members led or co-filed 10 political spending or lobbying resolutions.

When It comes to political spending on elections, we rely on guidance from the Center for Political Accountability (CPA). CPA, collaborating with the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research and Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, developed a model code of conduct. They apply that code and produce an annual report on political spending disclosure.

Capturing information on corporate lobbying is more difficult. Generally, it comes in three streams:

  1. Corporations directly employ lobbyists for matters of concern on the federal, state, and local level. The laws regarding disclosure vary in each jurisdiction making it difficult to track. For example, e-cigarette maker Juul admitted to Congress that it lobbies in 48 states, but try to gather all that data on your own.
  2. Corporations also make payments to trade associations that lobby on their behalf without specific disclosure or accountability. The US Chamber of Commerce has spent more than $1.6 billion since 1998.
  3. Corporations make payments to 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofits and 527 political organizations, often referred to as “dark money,” that can create legal and reputational risk for companies. Ohio utility FirstEnergy is under investigation for funneling $60 million through a dark money 501(c)(4) group called Generation Now that was used for bribery. In another example, the Rule of Law Defense Fund is a social welfare group that helped organize the protest before the January 6th riots and is an arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

While corporate and traditional PAC direct donations to politicians have strict limits, company payments to trade associations and 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofits for lobbying have no restrictions. This means companies can give unlimited amounts to third-party groups that spend millions on lobbying and undisclosed grassroots activity. Thus, shareholder proposals for lobbying disclosure capture indirect spending through trade associations or social welfare groups.

The CPA-Zicklin Index found that, among companies listed in S&P 500, only 18% fully disclose their contributions to 501(c)(4) advocacy groups, only 24% fully disclose their contributions to trade associations, and only 30% fully disclose their donations to 527 political organizations. So there is a long way to go.

In the wake of January’s attack on the U.S. Capitol and the pause imposed by some companies on their political donations, prospects for a change in the status quo may be improving. In February, ICCR asked companies to consider ending political spending on elections. This proxy season, shareholders sent a clear message for more disclosure and alignment of corporate political spending and lobbying.

This post is in a series that exams the outcome of the 2021 proxy season. For a complete list of SGI resolutions from 2021, please visit this page.

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