Preempting Sunlight


House Republicans, and more than a few Democrats, have taken a series of votes to kill a proposed executive order that would shine more light on dark money electioneering contributions made by recipients of government contracts.

The votes are remarkable for a number of reasons. First, there is no executive order. Opponents of disclosure are responding to a draft EO that was leaked to the press in April, resulting in an outcry from the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s allies on Capitol Hill responded with amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act as well as three appropriations bills, (Homeland Security, Department of Defense and Energy and Water) that would prevent agencies from using their appropriations to implement “any rule, regulation or executive order” regarding the disclosure political contributions.

Even more remarkable is the looking glass way the lawmakers have turned transparency on its head, pretending that it would result in a “pay-to-play” system that would somehow advantage government contractors who contribute to Democrats.

One of the most important features of the draft EO is that it would require any entity bidding for a government contract to disclose contributions it made to third parties—like the Chamber or other shadowy nonprofit organizations—when those contributions are intended to pay for electioneering communications. Shining a light on this type of secret, dark money spending is a critical first step to restoring accountability to the political process.

But the Chamber has convinced a majority of the House that allowing voters to scrutinize who is paying for political ads will somehow corrupt the process of the awarding of government contracts. In fact, the opposite is true. The current opaque regime allows potential government contractors who want to garner favor with decision-makers in Congress or the executive branch to make secret campaign expenditures that only the decision-makers will know about. So pay-to-play, the alleged concern of those opposed to the EO, continues unabated and in secret.

The other canard opponents of the draft EO like to use is that the disclosure requirements are burdensome or unconstitutional. But the receipt of taxpayer dollars in the form of a federal contract always comes with conditions, including a variety of reporting requirements. Disclosure of contributions is no more burdensome than any other check imposed on potential contractors, and, as the Supreme Court noted, does not conflict with the first amendment.

Responsibility for making campaign expenditures transparent has been shunted to the White House by an activist Supreme Court that allowed dark money into our elections and an inactive Congress that has failed to shine a light on it. The House’s preemptive strikes against the EO should not derail the President’s efforts to ensure that there is transparency in the federal contracting process.