WASHINGTON, DC — Months after the U.S. Supreme Court radically expanded the rights of corporations to political speech and religious liberty, top business leaders gathered at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC on Wednesday to argue that corporations’ “free speech is under attack” and belittle shareholders’ calls for more political spending transparency.
Chamber of Commerce leaders, corporate executives and political analysts praised the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC and the subsequent rulings this year in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn. Panelists for a session called Today’s Free Speech Environment repeatedly argued that shareholder efforts to enforce political contribution disclosure requirements are an attempt to silence the business community.
“The real concern is that corporations are going to acquiesce in some form or fashion to what these activists want, notwithstanding that 80 percent of their shareholders disagree with the activists,” said James Copeland, director of the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute. But a recent Center for Political Accountability study found that more companies are offering details of their political spending and are recognizing that it’s good governance to bring transparency to the hundreds of millions of corporate dollars flowing into the political process with little oversight.
The 2014 midterm election broke records for the most dark money ever spent in a campaign cycle, estimating a total cost of $3.67 billion. The Chamber of Commerce, whose foundation sponsored Wednesday’s event, spent more than $35 million in the 2014 election, making it the biggest spender of organizations that were not national party committees.
Paul Atkins, CEO of Patomak Global Partners LLC, agreed with Copeland and added that shareholders and groups with at least $2,000 in investments are given too much voice at corporations’ annual meetings and given “free advertising” in proxy statements.
“If you have very small holdings in a corporation, you can have a very big bullhorn and you can have a soapbox,” he said. “When I was a staffer at the SEC back in the early 90s, a group of Neo-Nazis came up with a proposal for AT&T… it had to go into the proxy statement because of the way the rules were. That’s pretty bad but carry it forward now — we have issues here like disclosure of political spending or lobbying or general political spending and these disclosures are not material at all.”
Atkins also argued that disclosure is “not good for the bottom line,” comparing it to a football coach having to share the instructions he or she gives to the team with the public. “If all that were broadcast far and wide, that would not be very good for the performance of the football team on the field. The same is true with respect to corporations.”
Although the panelists repeatedly praised recent high court decisions that have expanded corporate rights, the Supreme Court has actually backed disclosure. In his 5-4 majority opinion in the Citizens United decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Disclosure is a less restrictive alternative to more comprehensive regulations of speech.” And in the early 2000s, when Congress considered the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, Republicans actually supported disclosure and argued that complete disclosure, rather than regulation, was the best campaign finance law.
Despite Republicans’ past support of disclosure, Michael Barone, senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, said during the panel that efforts like the DISCLOSE Act threaten political rights, lamenting that it’s “one of the unfortunate aspects of our time” that the left has abandoned its advocacy of free speech.
“I was privileged to be at the Iowa state fair in August 2011 where Mitt Romney said that corporations are people,” he said. “That was taken as a political gaffe but I think that…obviously corporations do consist of people.”