Shareholder Proposal Settlements and the Private Ordering of Public Elections
64 Pages Posted: 16 May 2016
Date Written: May 16, 2016
Reform of campaign finance disclosure has stalled in Congress and at various federal agencies, but it is steadily unfolding in a firm-by-firm program of private ordering. Today, much of what is publicly known about how individual public companies spend money to influence federal, state, and local elections – and particularly what is known about corporate “dark money” – comes from disclosures that conform to privately-negotiated contracts.
The primary mechanism for this new transparency is the settlement of the shareholder proposal, in which a shareholder trades its rights under SEC Rule 14a-8 – and potentially the rights of other shareholders – for a privately-negotiated social policy commitment by corporate management. Settlements of campaign finance disclosure proposals have been memorialized in detailed private agreements that set the frequency, format, and substance of disclosure reports, are enforced by private actors, and typically are not available to other shareholders, corporate stakeholders, or the public. Proposal settlements are producing a body of private disclosure law that increases corporate transparency to advance First Amendment values, and is exempt from First Amendment scrutiny. The private disclosure standards themselves are a mixed bag: effective at filling some gaps in public campaign finance disclosure law, but inadequate to make corporate electoral spending transparent in advance of elections.
As a form of private electoral regulation, the proposal settlement mechanism raises issues of democratic transparency, participation, accountability, and enforcement. This Article challenges the characterization of proposal settlements as “voluntary” corporate self-regulation, provides a framework for understanding settlement-related agency costs, and shows how settlement subverts the traditional justifications for the shareholder proposal itself. Solutions that address the democratic and corporate governance problems of settlement largely overlap, suggesting a path forward.
Keywords: campaign finance, corporate political spending, corporate disclosure, shareholder proposal, First Amendment, Rule 14a-8, shareholder proposal settlement, private ordering, electoral integrity, SEC
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