Voting across party lines, the House yesterday soundly approved a measure that would override accounting standards-setters and require companies to expense stock options only for their five top executives.
The House passed the bill, pushed aggressively by high-tech companies that rely on issuing options to executives and employees, by a vote of 312 to 111 after two hours of sometimes contentious debate. The House bill would derail a broader proposal by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, an independent group that is moving to force companies to treat stock options for all of their employees as an expense.
The House measure directs regulators to study the consequences of expensing stock options, which give workers a chance to buy company shares at a set price and within a particular time frame. It also instructs companies to use a method for valuing stock options that critics argue is prone to manipulation.
"FASB doesn't always get it right," said Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.), lead sponsor of the House measure, who called it a "common-sense compromise."
Yesterday's vote carries echoes of recent history. The last time the FASB considered the issue, a decade ago, its leaders backed off under pressure from the Senate and then-Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. Levitt later said failing to support the expensing of stock options was the biggest mistake of his SEC tenure.
Attempts yesterday by a group of Democrats to scuttle the bill or substantially amend it failed. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.) said on the House floor that yesterday's vote begins "the process of repealing the reforms we enacted" in landmark corporate reform legislation in 2002.
But the ultimate fate of the legislation is unclear.
Key lawmakers in the Senate, including Banking Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), have vowed to block the House bill as an example of improper political interference with accounting standards. Shelby said yesterday he is "firmly convinced" that Congress should stay away from the issue.
"This is no time to turn back the clock on corporate governance reforms," added Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), a supporter of the FASB plan.
To get around Senate opposition, the bill's supporters may attempt to attach it to an appropriations measure or another piece of legislation. Rep. George R. Nethercutt (R-Wash.) last week inserted language into a report on the Labor and Health and Human Services departments spending bill that would delay any options expensing plan by ordering up a study on its impact. Consideration of that bill is unlikely before Labor Day, a committee spokeswoman said.
A coalition of technology firms, led by chipmaker Intel Corp. and Internet equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc., has bitterly fought the standards-setters, enlisting high-profile lobbyists and mobilizing their workers to appear at rallies and to write letters. Expensing stock options would cut reported profit at many companies, particularly in the technology sector, where options have been commonplace.
"The House vote in and of itself is an extremely powerful statement" to regulators, said Jeff Peck, the chief lobbyist for the International Employee Stock Options Coalition, which opposes widespread expensing of options.
Nearly 600 companies already expense stock options on a voluntary basis, including Microsoft Corp., International Business Machines Corp. and General Electric Co. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William H. Donaldson have thrown their support behind expensing and have warned lawmakers to steer clear.
Steven Getz, a spokesman for the FASB, said it will move ahead with the expensing plan and complete a final standard by the end of the year. But, echoing comments last month from top regulators, Getz said postponing the effective date of the standard -- which was to take hold by Dec. 15 -- is still a possibility amid repeated requests from companies for a delay.