How should we react when businesses donate to nonprofits, think tanks, and social welfare organizations? Should we feel fear and disgust that Big Money is corrupting our democracy? Or should we be glad that Americans are able to hear the perspectives of the business community, and that civically-engaged organizations are finding patrons for their efforts?
These are the questions not asked by the annual index of corporate disclosure policies published by the Center for Political Accountability and the Zicklin School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Although the CPA-Zicklin Index attracts a steady stream of media attention, it does not take seriously the potential value of corporate engagement in public policy discussions. Its authors claim merely to want corporations to disclose their giving to nonprofits and advocacy groups, but they are just as happy (and perhaps happier) if that giving dries up altogether.
Don't take it from me: The 2017 edition of the Index released last week uses the words "prohibition," "prohibit," "prohibiting," and "prohibited" more than 50 times. It celebrates that, among companies it has tracked since 2015, "the number that fully disclose or prohibit political contributions from corporate funds has increased."
There are a lot of problems with the CPA-Zicklin report, starting with the basic fact that all corporations are already required by law to disclose their political contributions to candidates, parties, and PACs. What, then, is CPA-Zicklin even talking about? In fact, what it calls "political contributions" are actually contributions to charities, think tanks, nonprofit civic organizations, and trade associations that engage in civic discourse about public policy. Corporations that give to the "wrong" organizations (ones with a conservative tilt or message) are then targeted by the Left for harassment and boycotts.
CPA-Zicklin claims to be merely interested in good corporate governance. But fundamentally, if you do not believe corporate speech has any value, you cannot offer sincere best practices for facilitating it. CPA and the Zicklin School have every right to promote their political objective of making corporate support for nonprofits more cumbersome and controversial, but they should not pretend to have companies' best interests in mind when doing so.
There is little evidence that corporate disclosure policies benefit shareholder value. Indeed, there is evidence they may even harm businesses overall. Perhaps that is why momentum for broader corporate disclosure policies — which never gained that much steam in the first place — has slowed, and why shareholders have almost uniformly rejected proposals to mandate increased disclosure of the type promoted by CPA-Zicklin.
Rather than treating businesses as a threat to democratic society, we should view them as members of society with voices worth hearing alongside any other. Those voices may be persuasive, or they may not be. Americans are always free to challenge or dismiss messages they disagree with.
The question opponents of corporate speech, including CPA-Zicklin, must answer is this: Why should businesses be discouraged from sharing their perspectives on public policy?
Bradley A. Smith is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is chairman and founder of the Center for Competitive Politics and served on the Federal Election Commission from 2000 to 2005.
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