A House panel yesterday approved a measure watering down proposed requirements that companies treat stock options as expenses on their financial statements.
The Financial Services Committee voted 45 to 13, across party lines, to report the bill out of committee. But lawmakers said yesterday that it is not clear when the full House will take it up since the voting schedule for the rest of the year is still under discussion.
The bill approved yesterday would require companies to treat stock options, or the right to buy stock at a set price for a limited period of time, as an expense only when granted to chief executives and the four other highest-paid company officials. The law would not apply to companies with revenue under $25 million. Nor would it take effect until after the Labor and Commerce departments have completed a study about the consequences of expensing options. Opponents of the measure argued it would impose a method for valuing the options that is subject to manipulation.
The vote comes as the Financial Accounting Standards Board, an independent group of accounting experts, is wrapping up a comment period on a controversial proposal requiring public companies to treat options for all employees as an expense. FASB has won support from the nation's four biggest accounting firms and from leaders at the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission, among others. But the board's stance is bitterly opposed by technology companies, which have long used options as a reward for executives and other employees.
Supporters of the more limited House approach said they hope yesterday's vote will help to build momentum for their cause.
"We're very gratified that the bill was reported out by such a remarkably bipartisan margin," said Jeff Peck, the chief lobbyist for the International Employee Stock Options Coalition, who noted that 20 Democrats voted in favor of the proposal.
Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.), a strong supporter of the bill, said yesterday he would be "surprised" if it didn't receive a vote by the full House this year.
No matter what happens in the House, imposing roadblocks remain in the Senate. Key lawmakers there, including Banking Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), have reiterated opposition to the House plan, citing concerns that political interference with FASB would set a dangerous precedent -- essentially inviting Congress to meddle with the decisions of standards-setters in future disputes. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a member of the Financial Services Committee, said there had been a previous half-dozen such attempts, but none as high-profile as the battle over stock options.
Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), also a member of the committee, called the legislation "a major step backward."
"Let's not kid ourselves," he said. "It's not about protecting the average American worker. It's about protecting the obscene compensation levels of executives."
More than 500 companies, including software giant Microsoft Corp., voluntarily treat options as an expense. International accounting standards-setters already have rules in place that require the expensing of stock options.
But other U.S. firms, including Intel Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., are pressing ahead on multiple fronts. The companies are urging employees to protest the FASB plan by holding a rally June 24, the same day standards-setters will hold a nearby roundtable meeting in Palo Alto, Calif.