More companies publicly disclosing what they spend on politics, study finds

CPA-Zicklin Index measured the largest increase in companies with transparent policies

Google's parent company Alphabet is one of the most open about its political spending, according to the CPA-Zicklin Index . (Amy Osborne/AFP via Getty Images)

A rise in shareholder and consumer activism has prompted more companies to publicly disclose what they spend on politics.

Bruce Freed, president and co-founder of the Center for Political Accountability, said companies are doing it to insulate themselves from criticism at a time when politics has become more heated.

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Freed’s center, along with the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, recently released the annual CPA-Zicklin Index, a rating of how open, or not, major corporations are with the details of their otherwise hidden political spending.

Though the PACs of businesses disclose their contributions to candidates, companies can keep hidden the money they give to outside groups, such as trade associations, that engage in electioneering.

Companies most open about such spending in 2019 included Google parent Alphabet, AT&T, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Visa.

The 2019 index featured the largest increase in companies with transparent policies, from 57 in 2018 to 73 this year.

Freed surmises that a force behind the uptick in corporate political disclosures is the political volatility heading into the 2020 presidential election year.

“There is a Trump effect,” Freed said. “Because of social media and the rise of millennials’ activism, companies are finding that they need policies to protect themselves.”

Disclosure of payments to trade associations and other outside groups can lead businesses to more thoroughly vet the consequences of such investments, Freed said. Businesses are increasingly considering such spending as having a direct link to their brand identities and their bottom lines.

Freed said that even with the increase in voluntary disclosures, he still sees a need for Congress to make them “uniform and universal.” His CPA-Zicklin Index, he added, may provide a template for what such disclosures eventually may look like.

“You can lay the strong foundation where you’re essentially creating a turnkey where what companies are doing now will then be codified through regulation or legislation,” he said.

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