05.17.2012Earlier this week I was a panelist at the 2012 Corporate Political Spending Conference presented by The Conference Board in Washington, D.C. The panel topic was “So You Need a Policy: Context & Purpose in Developing a Program on Corporate Political Spending.” This post is adapted from remarks I made at the conference. Your mother probably taught that “you should never discuss sex, politics, or religion in polite company.” A political expenditure is a political opinion held strongly enough to be backed with cash. Writing and implementing a company policy entails a dialogue among board members, officers, employees and ultimately shareholders. Your company sells widgets – you are not a political association where members share common political views. As a business, you would NOT look to touch anyone’s political opinion with a ten-foot pole unless there is a compelling business justification. Mother knew best: this is one of those delicate and intrusive areas of human inter-relationship that needs to be handled with the greatest sensitivity. Especially as this federal election year proceeds, it seems fair to say that the political environment in the U.S. is hyper-partisan. Your company may have employees who are actively, even passionately engaged in their own political activities. These activities are personal and likely have nothing to do with their job at the company. The Citizens United decision demonstrates the tension between the First Amendment and campaign finance regulation. In response, legislators are experimenting with alternative bases for reasserting some government control over political spending, such as “pay-to-play” laws. We cannot accurately gauge the ultimate scope of these innovations and which will be upheld against the inevitable First Amendment challenge. In this dynamic regulatory context, an “optimal” policy today may be out of date tomorrow. Along with new opportunities and avenues for political participation after Citizens United come responsibility, scrutiny, and accountability. A carefully-wrought company policy is the armor you must wear for political engagement.