The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is being dragged into the 2016 presidential election — and it has nothing to do with how it regulates Wall Street.
More than 40 Democratic senators signed a letter Monday urging SEC Chair Mary Jo White to require that public companies disclose their spending on political campaigns. The issue risks driving another wedge between White and many Democrats who see her as the best remaining hope for restricting corporate campaign cash.
“We ask that you make this a top priority for the SEC in the near term, and inform us of the basis for your decision should you not plan to include it on the commission’s agenda for the upcoming year,” the Democrats including Charles Schumer of New York and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada wrote.
Debate over corporate political spending flared after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that companies and unions could spend unlimited money on election ads. Corporations aren’t required to report contributions they make to outside groups that fund ads, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
White, a political independent appointed by President Barack Obama, annoyed Democrats two years ago when she withdrew consideration of a political-spending rule from the agency’s regulatory blueprint. While the SEC doesn’t enforce campaign-donation laws, it can require that public companies disclose important information to their investors.
White appeared to pour cold water on the proposal in October 2013, saying disclosure rules foisted on the SEC by outside groups “seem more directed at exerting societal pressure on companies to change behavior, rather than to disclose financial information that primarily informs investment decisions.”
Democrats argue that any money spent to influence elections should be reported to shareholders, while many Republicans say the amounts are immaterial. In recent months, Democratic members of Congress and several left-leaning groups have ratcheted up pressure on White and the SEC to act.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, who also signed the letter, in June called White’s tenure “extremely disappointing,” citing the chairman’s failure to require disclosure of companies’ political expenditures. In March, a coalition of unions and nonprofit groups, including Public Citizen and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, paid for ads in Washington’s Union Station that portrayed White as a superhero who could hold back the torrent of corporate cash.
The 44 senators, who include 42 Democrats as well as independents Bernie Sanders and Angus King, told White they support a 2011 petition written by a group of law professors that asked the SEC to force businesses to disclose political expenditures. Gina Talamona, a spokeswoman for White, declined to comment on the letter.
“We add our voices to the many who have expressed frustration and disappointment that the SEC decided to remove this issue from its regulatory agenda entirely,” the senators wrote.