Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly referred to the Center for Public Accountability. The name of the organization is the Center for Political Accountability. This version has been updated.
UNQUESTIONABLY, THERE’S a lot of money in politics. Also unquestionably, much of it flows through corporations without the full disclosure that the Supreme Court assumed would occur when it liberated corporate (and union) donations in its Citizens United ruling six years ago. The latest manifestation is “dark money” flowing from large individual donors to campaigns via sham corporations set up to evade disclosure rules.
What is open to question is the best way to get more disclosure — which brings us to the current stalemate in the Senate over President Obama’s nominees to fill two vacancies on the five-member Securities and Exchange Commission. Three members is the minimum for the SEC to transact business, which means any member can block it from acting by refusing to show up for a vote. Sensing leverage, some Banking Committee Democrats, led by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), are linking the corporate campaign finance issue to a confirmation vote on the president’s picks — law professors Hester Peirce, a Republican, and Lisa M. Fairfax, a Democrat. They want the pair to declare their views on greater disclosure by public corporations of political donations, including, possibly, an SEC rule requiring contributions to be reported in annual reports to shareholders.
Not satisfied with the nominees’ noncommittal answers, the Democrats voted against them at a committee session on April 7, scrambling a pre-arranged deal on a package of five nominees, including the two SEC picks, that chairman Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) had struck with ranking member Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Now the nominees are back in limbo as Mr. Shelby decides when, or if, to stage a do-over.
We understand the demand for such a rule, which has sparked a petition with more than 1 million signatures; we understand, too, that pro-disclosure legislation has been bottled up by congressional Republicans and that the Federal Election Commission has failed to act. The problem is that the goal doesn’t justify the means they’re employing. The SEC should not have to pay for Congress’s own failure to come up with a rule, even if that is mostly the GOP’s fault.
What’s more, there are thorny legal questions as to whether the courts would ultimately regard campaign spending as the kind of “material” matter for investors which the SEC has authority to regulate. A nominee who opined on a hypothetical SEC rule strong enough to satisfy Mr. Schumer et al. might find her impartiality questioned if and when the commission did vote on it. Indeed, given GOP opposition to corporate disclosure, extracting a statement from a nominee might prevent her from being confirmed in the first place. Meanwhile, many public companies have decided voluntarily that it’s good business to reveal their political spending through the nonpartisan Center for Political Accountability. That’s no substitute for a uniform legal requirement but it’s progress.
The SEC has a lot of other important business on its agenda. Mr. Schumer and his allies have made their valid point; now it’s time for them, and the rest of the committee, to move these nominees along.