Why Are America's CEOs So Afraid of a Little Sunlight on Their Political Causes?

The Supreme Court said limits on political donations weren't necessary with adequate disclosure. Now big companies are fighting even that.

Mike Stone/Reuters

My candidate for the most revelatory story of the week came Tuesday in theĀ New York Times. Nicholas Confessore, writing about the proposed campaign finance disclosure rule now pending at the Securities and Exchange Commission, offered two things that advance and refine the contours of this very important legal and political story. First, he got this quote onto the record:

Opponents said they believed the main purpose of the petition was not to protect shareholders, but to dry up sources of money for pro-business political groups. "It's about outing donors and scaring them into not giving to political groups that they're opposed to," said Phil Kerpen of American Commitment, a tax-exempt group that spent more than $3 million last year on advertisements criticizing Democratic candidates for Senate.

It's about outing donors. This is what opponents of campaign-finance reform are left to argue now that the political and legal fight has moved from barriers -- the point of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United case -- to transparency. In this warped worldview, requiring public corporations to disclose their political contributions to their shareholders is not a self-confident act of free-market transparency, but rather some forced act of shame and humiliation. Corporate executives who have built careers and mansions by having the courage of their convictions are suddenly cowards when it comes to publicly standing behind their corporations' political expenditures.

The second important part of Confessore's piece is here:

Instead, some large companies donate money to trade associations and other tax-exempt groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, founded by Karl Rove, which in turn mount huge advertising campaigns on businesses' behalf. Because those groups assert their spending to be educational in nature, they are exempt from most of the donor disclosure requirements that apply to super PACs, political parties and candidates.

The trade associations lining up in opposition to the rule amount to a roll call of the most politically influential -- and highly regulated -- industries in the country. They include the American Gaming Association, the National Retail Federation and the National Mining Association.

It's not the corporate boards themselves that are openly fighting this regulatory-reform effort. Corporate executives aren't doing their own dirty work in public for the same reason they don't want to have to disclose their corporation's donations in the first place -- because they fear the public reaction to the political choices they want to make. So, instead, the current fight against the proposed new SEC rules, like the old fight against McCain-Feingold, is being waged by the corporate shills and front men -- the trade groups and associations -- that receive the (for now still-) secret corporate political expenditures and funnel them to campaigns and causes. What dirty business.

Remember when the tribunes of such trade associations would themselves have feared a public backlash from coming out so strongly against transparency and public accountability? I do. And I remember when conservative politicians from far and wide opposed to restrictions on campaign spending favored transparency as an alternative. If you don't believe me, just read U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in Citizens United, the long paragraph near the end where he writes that

The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.

Justice Kennedy evidently doesn't consider disclosure to be some sort of shameful "outing." And he's still the fifth and decisive vote on that court.