We’ve all been there before – charging headlong down the interstate at a few (or more than a few) miles per hour over the speed limit, when we suddenly come upon a speed trap conveniently tucked into a service road in the highway median.  The natural reaction – pump the breaks, keep it at the limit for the next half mile or so, and hope upon hope that you are not the unlucky one singled out for the traffic stop and corresponding ticket.   Sometimes you escape unscathed…. sometimes you don’t.

Well, who says federal regulators aren’t just like the rest of us.  On Tuesday, in our nation’s capital, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) did its best interstate speed trap impression when it announced that it would delay the adoption of the pay-to-play regulatory proposal submitted by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) in late December of 2015 so as to allow further comment on the potential impact of the provisions.  The delay itself is likely a surprise to many of our loyal readers – after all, it’s not often that our blog gets the chance to cover regulators (federal or otherwise) who decide to slow the push toward stricter pay-to-play and transparency regulations .  In all likelihood, however, most members of FINRA and others in the regulated community see the SEC’s action as nothing more than a pump of the bureaucratic breaks as the Commission navigates its way past some constitutional speed traps and on its way back up to high-speed regulation.

For those who haven’t followed our recent coverage of this issue (here and here), FINRA first proposed a set of pay-to-play provisions way back in 2014 that, although modeled on SEC Rule 206(4)-5, included unique compensation disgorgement and disclosure elements that drew a slew of negative public comments from many in the regulated community.  In light of those objections, FINRA reconsidered the structure of its initial proposal and submitted a new framework to the SEC late last December for review, approval and adoption.

The main component of the proposed regulatory structure – Rule 2030(a) – again borrowed from SEC Rule 206(4)-5 and sought to restrict the ability of FINRA member firms to engage in distribution or solicitation activities on behalf of registered investment advisers that provide or seek to provide investment advisory services to government entities if “covered employees” of the broker-dealers make prohibited political contributions.  The submitted rule, like other federal pay-to-play regulations already in effect, would not specifically ban or limit the amount of political contributions covered FINRA members and their covered associates can make to government officials.  Rather, Rule 2030(a) seeks to impose a two-year “time out” on the earning of compensation for distribution or solicitation engagements with a government entity on behalf of an investment adviser when a FINRA member or its covered associate makes a disqualifying contribution.

So, if FINRA’s new pay-to-play proposal merely tracks the provisions already in place against registered investment advisors under current SEC rules, why did the Commission even bother to pump the breaks at all on its approval?  Well, many in the regulated community believe that the delay is a direct result of the SEC’s concern about the constitutional “speed trap” the Commission has once again run into in the pay-to-play context.  As we here at Pay to Play Law Blog have highlighted with some frequency these past few years, recent First Amendment jurisprudence coming out of the federal courts has (in many people’s eyes) begun to erode much of the constitutional justification for pay-to-play rules that restrict political speech for the sake of regulating the appearance of corruption rather than actual quid pro quo corruption.

The SEC first tangled with such a free-speech “speed trap” in litigation with the New York and Tennessee Republican Parties, who sought declaratory and injunctive relief invalidating and enjoining the Commission from enforcing Rule 206(4)-5.  Although the Commission was able to escape this pay-to-play constitutional challenge without being pulled over and ticketed – due to the dismissal of the suit at the District Court level and affirmation of that decision by the D.C. Circuit – it nevertheless made the regulators stand up and become slightly more defensive drivers when cruising down the regulatory highway.  The Commission’s reaction to the present FINRA proposal makes this readily apparent.

Just months after concluding its litigation battle with the GOP state parties, the SEC received a flurry of well-reasoned comments from groups (including the NY and TN GOP, the Center for Competitive Politics, and others) opposing the FINRA proposal on similar constitutional grounds to what the Commission faced in the Rule 206(4)-5 suit.  Seeing this same free-speech “speed trap” appearing again on the horizon, the SEC thoughtfully withheld its rubber stamp for the FINRA proposal and decided to pump the breaks on its regulatory activity until a more thorough rulemaking could be conducted.  Depending on the outcome of that process, which will permit the submission of additional written comments and the presentation of oral testimony on the FINRA proposals, the delay could be a full blown traffic stop for the SEC, or nothing more than an obligatory slowdown by the Commission as it makes its way past the radar gun.

Those in the regulated community who question the constitutionality of the FINRA provisions (and the analogous SEC rules), see this delay as a key opportunity to reign in the Commission and its approach to federal pay-to-play provisions.  Others, however, simply see the delay as a postponement of the inevitable – a move by the SEC that simply allows it to get its ducks in a row regarding the FINRA provisions and insulate itself against any future legal challenges.  Only time will tell which part of the regulated community is correct, but we here at Pay to Play Law Blog will be right here to keep our readers apprised of the next steps in this ongoing saga.