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Business Roundtable softening stance on political transparency?

Document suggests a shift in attitude by lobbying powerhouse

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In 2013, the Business Roundtable — a nonprofit trade association for the nation’s leading CEOs and one of the country’s most powerful lobbying forces — made clear its stance on corporate political transparency.

"Corporations do NOT support increased political and lobbying 'disclosure,’” then-Business Roundtable President John Engler declared to Fortune 500 business leaders in a letter co-signed by U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue and National Association of Manufacturers President and CEO Jay Timmons.

But the Business Roundtable’s hard line on corporations volunteering information about their political activities appears to have blurred — at least a bit.

In its latest “Principles of Corporate Governance” report, the Business Roundtable encourages corporate members to decide for themselves whether to publicly disclose political activities, such as contributing cash to so-called “dark money” nonprofit groups that aim to influence elections without revealing who funds them.

“To the extent that the company engages in political activities, the board should have oversight responsibility and consider whether to adopt a policy on disclosure of these activities,” reads the report, which echoes similarly pro-transparency statements the Business Roundtable made years ago.

Business Roundtable officials acknowledged the Center for Public Integrity’s request to explain the apparent change. But officials did not respond to repeated follow-up phone calls and emails seeking comment.

The Business Roundtable indeed “appears to have significantly softened its stance on disclosure of political activity,” said John Wonderlich, executive director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for political transparency.

The apparent shift, he said, “reflects a growing judgement that secret political spending violates our political norms and can create liabilities for businesses and their brands.”

But David Keating, president of the nonprofit Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates for political speech rights, disagrees, calling the Business Roundtable’s latest statement on political disclosure “unremarkable.”

Keating — whose legal efforts led to the creation of super PACs — noted that the Business Roundtable’s Principles of Corporate Governance document scolds corporate shareholders who attempt “to use the public companies in which they invest as platforms for the advancement of their personal agendas or for the promotion of general political or social causes.”

Other portions of the 28-page document reiterate this point, as corporations have sometimes faced efforts by “activist” shareholders bent on forcing the corporations to publicly disclose more information about their own politicking or financial support of political groups.

In sum, the Business Roundtable “does not appear to have softened its stance on voluntary disclosure,” Keating said. “Disclosing one’s affiliations with trade associations and nonprofits creates a roadmap for activists to pressure corporations in an attempt to starve [politically active nonprofit] groups of support and silence their voices.”

These days, however, the Business Roundtable is in part led by corporate executives whose companies publicly reveal a considerable amount of information about their political practices.

Of the 23 members of the Business Roundtable’s executive committee, eight — the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Boeing Co., Dow Chemical Co., Northrop Grumman Corp., Honeywell International Inc., General Electric Co. and MasterCard Inc. — ranked at or near the top of the 2016 edition of an annual corporate political transparency study conducted by the Center for Political Accountability and University of Pennsylvania Wharton School's Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research. (It's a study the Business Roundtable has previously criticized.)

Several other Business Roundtable executive committee members led companies that also received high marks for political transparency, including Lockheed Martin Corp., CVS Health Corp., AT&T Inc. and Cummins Inc.

Often, contributions these companies publicly disclosed go to politically active trade associations. Occasionally, they helped fund nonprofit “social welfare” groups that took strong stances against politicians and their policies, as the Center for Public Integrity previously reported.

Since 2007, the Business Roundtable has spent at least $10 million annually on federal lobbying efforts involving numerous topics, from taxes and trade, to health care and immigration, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks such expenditures.

In 2016, it spent $15,700,000 on federal lobbying — its second-highest total in any year since 2000.

The U.S. Chamber, which with the Business Roundtable co-signed the 2013 missive against political transparency, is one of the few entities that spends more money annually on government lobbying.

U.S. Chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes said her organizations views on political transparency “have not changed” and that it hasn’t witnessed “increased investor interests in disclosure” based on the results of shareholders’ transparency proposals.

The National Association of Manufacturers did not respond to requests for comment.

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