A continuing soap opera for the past several years has been whether the Securities and Exchange Commission will craft a rule on corporate political donations.

Activists have long sought a rule requiring the disclosure of political contributions, whether people, causes, or trade associations. Democrats have embraced the idea. Republicans have sought to kill it with prohibitory language inserted in spending bills.

The latest effort to bring those disclosures to fruition comes from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who says he “has led the fight for transparency since Citizens United opened the floodgates for unlimited, unchecked corporate spending in elections.”

He and Democratic colleagues have delivered a letter to new SEC Chairman Jay Clayton apprising him of a reintroduction of the Shareholder Protection Act and pushing him to get on board.

“For seven long years, corporate executives have been able to treat money invested by shareholders as their personal political piggy bank, spending it in secret to influence our elections – and their influence has only grown,” Menendez said in a statement. “It’s time to stop shielding corporations and start standing up for shareholders.”

“Powerful special interests have used Citizens United and the flow of dark money to hijack our 'We the People' democracy,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor of the legislation. “The executives running big corporations pump enormous sums into political campaigns, but they're using other people's money.  It's their shareholders' money and their shareholders' voices they are using to make these powerful political statements. We need to end this stolen speech.”

While the SEC has received more than 1.2 million public comments in favor of corporate political spending disclosure, it has made no progress towards implementing political spending disclosures, the letter to Clayton points out.

“In the face of a uniquely and unapologetically corporate-friendly administration eager to accede to the requests of chief executive officers, it is imperative that the SEC move swiftly to provide investors and the public with transparency about corporate political spending,” the letter says. “Without this disclosure, executives will remain free to spend corporate funds to influence election and policy outcomes without any accountability or oversight.”

The Shareholder Protection Act would:

Mandate a shareholder vote to approve an annual political expenditure budget chosen by the management for a publicly held corporation;

Require that each specific corporate political expenditure over a certain dollar threshold be approved by the board of directors and promptly disclosed to shareholders and the public;

Require that institutional investors inform all persons in their investment funds how they voted on corporate political expenditures; and

Post on the SEC website how much each corporation is spending on elections and which candidates or issues they support or oppose. 

Co-sponsors of the Shareholder Protection Act of 2017 are: Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jean Shaheen (D-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).