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Democrats seek SEC action on foreign influence in elections

Letter says oligarchs ‘likely have millions stowed away in U.S. corporations’

Concerned about influence on elections, Rep. Jamie Raskin and House colleagues are asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to require corporations to identify key foreign stakeholders.
Concerned about influence on elections, Rep. Jamie Raskin and House colleagues are asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to require corporations to identify key foreign stakeholders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Securities and Exchange Commission should adopt regulations to identify foreign-owned companies that spend corporate funds to influence elections, Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin and 15 other House Democrats say in a letter they plan to send Thursday. 

The letter, shared first with CQ Roll Call, cites Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to underscore the urgent need for the action. 

“Foreign interests have spent many millions of dollars in recent U.S. elections, often through ‘dark money’ channels, and we witnessed unprecedented foreign efforts to undermine our democracy during the 2016 election cycle,” the letter stated. “Further, as Russia continues its illegal war on Ukraine and the U.S. and its allies impose sanctions on President [Vladimir] Putin and Russia’s complicit oligarchs, we cannot forget that those same oligarchs likely have millions stowed away in U.S. corporations.” 

“Current law bars individual foreign nationals from personally contributing to federal campaigns,” the lawmakers note in their letter, “yet foreign political spending can still take place via U.S.-registered corporations that are foreign subsidiaries or appreciably foreign-owned or foreign-controlled, all thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.”

Raskin and his colleagues argue that the Citizens United decision, which paved the way for corporations to be able to give unlimited amounts from their treasuries to super PACs, “created a massive foreign money loophole in our country’s campaign finance system. The problem is that domestically registered corporations can be taken over, appreciably bought-up, controlled, or influenced by foreign governments, foreign corporations, or foreign nationals,” the letter said. 

The House Democrats’ missive is the latest putting the spotlight on the SEC, which regulates public companies and requires a number of disclosures. Even as the Federal Election Commission regulates political spending and campaign disclosures, the SEC has wide-ranging oversight of corporations.

The SEC recently proposed a rule that would ask companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and other climate risk impacts on their financial filings. The recent catchall government funding bill included a rider that would prohibit the SEC from finalizing a rule requiring more political disclosures, such as payments to nonprofit groups that engage in electioneering. 

Groups advocating for more disclosure have said the SEC should play a role in giving shareholders — and, by extension, the public — more information about how executives use business funds to influence politics. Opponents of the effort have called it an attempt to stifle political speech. 

Lisa Gilbert of the group Public Citizen said it was unfortunate the language barring the SEC from mandating such disclosure was in the final spending package.

“While the agency can in fact do work on the policy in the interim, the inability to finish a rule that would bring secret political spending, information long hotly-demanded by investors, into the sunlight is a keenly-felt missed opportunity,” Gilbert said in an email earlier this month. “As companies from banks, to crypto, to oil companies spend ever increasing amounts to influence our elections, investors have a right to know how their funds are being used in politics.” 

The lawmakers sending the letter Thursday also called on the SEC to formalize “a close working relationship on this policy with the Federal Election Commission, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Treasury, and any other relevant governmental entity — with the goal of ascertaining which regulated businesses are appreciably foreign-owned or foreign-controlled and are spending business funds for election-related purposes,” the letter said. 

The other members who signed the letter were Reps. Salud Carbajal, Katie Porter and Ted Lieu of California; Jim Cooper of Tennessee; Dwight Evans of Pennsylvania; Jesús “Chuy” García and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois; Pramila Jayapal of Washington; Jim McGovern of Massachusetts; Joe Neguse of Colorado; Tom Suozzi of New York; Dina Titus of Nevada; Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; Nikema Williams of Georgia; and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

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