The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is charged with maintaining fair and efficient markets, facilitating capital formation, and, like directors, protecting investor interests. This regulatory arm of the federal government has a significant impact on businesses, but many may not effectively understand the commission’s inner workings. Providing directors with an insider look at the SEC was a panel comprised of: Mark D. Cahn, former general counsel of the SEC’s Office of the General Counsel, and partner at WilmerHale; Thomas J. Kim, partner at Sidley Austin and former chief counsel and associate director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance; Troy Paredes, senior strategy and policy advisor at PwC and former SEC commissioner; and moderator Kendra Decker, partner in Grant Thornton’s National Professional Standards Group.
The SEC has five commissioners, each of whom is selected by the president of the United States, and no more than three of them can be from the same political party. The president also selects one commissioner to serve as chair. The chair sets the agenda and makes senior hiring decisions; however, this does not create a hierarchy as that professional title might imply. The commissioners are like a board of directors, with each person maintaining their own, independent voice as they vote on the issues set before them.
“No one commissioner has the power to do anything,” Kim said. “They only have power by acting as a commission, just like a board must act as a collective body.” Although the SEC is generally thought of as a rulemaking entity, Cahn pointed out that it’s a relatively infrequent occurrence that commissioners actually cast a vote. The organization’s day-to-day workings are processed at the staff level—and, in turn, the division heads engage with the commissioners.
The panel also drew attention to challenges within the commission. For Cahn, the biggest challenge with regard to rulemaking is the Government in the Sunshine Act of 1976, which requires all commission deliberations to be carried out in public. “You end up with meetings of two commissioners with staff members to discuss issues when they could be much more productive to work out matters as a group.”
In addition, trying to pass a rule through a multi-member commission can turn into a game of chess, with each member making suggestions for changes up until the last minute. If a rule passes with a split vote, those dissenting opinions serve as a roadmap to potential litigants who want to challenge the rule—a factor that emphasizes the importance of unanimity within the commission. “I think it [speaks] well for the agency overall when there’s consensus,” Parades said. “But sometimes you can’t bridge those differences. Another aspect is, from time to time, chairs have had a norm where they wouldn’t go forward unless there was a norm of four. What that does, it forces people to compromise and it doesn’t allow those in the majority to say that ‘this is what we’re going to do, regardless.’”
Despite these complexities, Paredes stressed the critical importance of third-party engagement. “The SEC is able to better evaluate the consequences of their rulemaking if they are able to hear from the people their rules are going to impact,” he said. “If [SEC] folks aren’t hearing that through one mechanism or another, there are going to be serious blind spots.”