Obama Can Reform Dark Money with a Stroke of a Pen
There’s a powerful solution for disclosing the secret money sloshing around in our political system. It does not require an act of Congress or action from any of the effectively toothless campaign finance watchdogs, like the Federal Elections Commission. In fact, this solution could be passed in an instant and the only requirement for action is political will.
President Barack Obama can issue an executive order today that requires government contractors to disclose their dark money campaign contributions.
Why doesn’t he? And why don’t campaign finance reform organizations push for such a fix?
In 2011, following the first wave of undisclosed campaign money in the 2010 midterms, the administration floated such an executive order. The idea provoked furious lobbying from business groups concerned that their donors would have to take responsibility for their electioneering.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest dark money group in the last two midterm elections, not so subtly threatened war with the White House over the order. “We will fight it through all available means,” one Chamber lobbyist told the New York Times, referencing the bombing campaign against Muammar Gaddafi, “To quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table.”
The order wouldn’t impact every dark money donor. Individuals and companies without contracts with the federal government would remain untouched.
However, the order would likely impact dozens of firms. General Dynamics, one of the largest defense contractors in the country, has told shareholders that it has directly funded political dark money groups, though they have declined to name them. As journalist Paul Blumenthal has pointed out, “JPMorgan Chase, Exxon Mobil, General Electric, and the aforementioned Koch Industries all hold government contracts.”
As Republicans prepare to focus narrowly on repealing the medical device tax in the next Congress, a measure that would increase the deficit by nearly $30 billion over ten years, doesn’t the public have a right to know the full extent of medical device manufacturers’ campaign donations? There’s evidence medical device companies funded some of the largest dark money campaign organs, but we do not have a full picture. Given that major medical device firms hold federal contracts, an executive order could help reporters and members of the public understand what’s really motivating our policymakers.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have cried foul on the disclosure idea, claiming that the executive order would exempt unions. But that’s simply not true: several unions have contracts with the federal government and would be included in the rule with other federal contractors. Moreover, many unions already disclose dark money payments through reports filed with the Department of Labor. The union argument is really a redherring because the rule would not impact dozens of corporate and individual dark money donors.
When the idea was originally floated in 2011, congressional Republicans temporarily blocked any further consideration of the executive order with riders attached to the appropriations bills. “These riders have since expired,” says Public Citizens’ Craig Holman, “and with the pending Republican majority in both chambers of Congress, a significant amount of the President’s agenda will have to be achieved through executive action. Opening up the books on dark money is one such action.”
Holman, Public Citizen’s lobbying expert, e-mailed Republic Report to say that his organization “is renewing its call to the Obama administration to issue an executive order requiring disclosure of political spending by government contractors.”
After initial floating the possibility of issuing the executive order, the administration backed down. The question is, will the failure to act on dark money be part of Obama’s legacy?