Congress to President Obama: Make government contractors disclose political spending

(Photo credit: Official White House Photo/Flickr)

Yesterday, President Barack Obama received separate letters from members of the House and Senate calling on him to draft and enact an executive order requiring federal government contractors to disclose their political contributions.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., along with 26 other senators, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., along with 104 House members, implored President Obama to improve this key aspect of campaign finance disclosure, noting that it wouldn’t require congressional authorization. Both letters acknowledged that executive action is necessary because partisan gridlock likely prevents any chance of legislative action.

Each correspondence recognized the unfortunate fact that ineffective disclosure and a preponderance of money characterize modern politics, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision. Neither letter asserted that revealing the political spending of government contractors is the panacea of campaign finance reform, yet there was a conviction that taxpayers deserve the right to know — and that “public funds come with public responsibility.”

Currently, corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman — the five largest government contractors in the 2014 fiscal year — can secretly funnel millions of dollars through dark money groups.

A recent analysis by Public Citizen, cited in the press release on Eshoo’s website, discovered that only “47 percent of the largest government contractors claim to fully disclose the details of their contributions to 501(c)(4) groups … and just 33 percent fully disclose the details of such payments to trade associations and other 501(c)(6) groups.” Even more disappointingly, the report found that a meager 27 percent of corporations contracted by the government fully disclose contributions to both 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) groups. Unfortunately, this type of dark money donation can be, and often is, used for political purposes — yet nobody except for the recipient and the corporation can truly know what is going on. This blatant gap in disclosure rules is the impetus behind the demand for the Obama administration to commit to transparency and fairness after wavering on the subject.

In 2011, President Obama drafted an executive order focused on addressing political spending disclosure of government contractors. Sunlight firmly supported it, along with other public interest groups; yet the president wavered, and the draft ultimately failed to go anywhere. Since then, politicians as well as scholars, citizens, policy organizations and journalists have continued to document the increasingly influential role of money in politics and the frustrating lack of sound disclosure laws. Unquestionably, reform is both needed and wanted.

Hopefully these letters catalyze President Obama and his administration to act, bringing greater clarity about this source of dark money.