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The People’s Business

Secret spending in elections is toxic. The Obama administration’s draft executive order to increase transparency in political spending is a big step in the right direction. It is time for the president to sign it.

  • Adam Skaggs
  • Elizabeth Kennedy
Published: June 17, 2011

Crossposted at Huffington Post.

Secret spending in elections is toxic. The Obama administration’s draft executive order to increase transparency in political spending is a big step in the right direction. It is time for the president to sign it.

Since the order leaked last month, the anti-reform movement has swung into attack mode. It will bring politics into the bidding process, says Darrell Issa (among others). It is a political enemies list, claims Marc Thiessen, a speechwriter for George W. Bush.

We’ve heard these anti-transparency voices before—and they’re still wrong. Historically, the idea that sunlight is the best disinfectant in a democracy has been accepted as a non-partisan truth because it exposes the political cronyism that can grow like mold in the dark. House Majority Leader John Boehner said so himself. “I think what we ought to do is we ought to have full disclosure, full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent,” said Boehner, appearing on Meet the Press in 2007. “And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Boehner’s colleagues disagree. They seem to believe all sunshine brings is the threat of skin cancer.

They are fundamentally misguided. To ensure that the government spends money transparently in the interests of taxpayers, the Obama administration’s draft executive order expands disclosure requirements for companies seeking to do business with the government. The proposed order covers currently-veiled donations to outside groups that spend money to influence elections. This means that voters would be informed if a group named Americans for Clean Coasts was actually brought to us by TransOcean or British Petroleum, companies that brought us the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year. This common sense reform is necessary so voters can know the true identity of those advancing political agendas under cover of darkness.

Transparency is necessary to protect the integrity of the federal contracting process, and to make sure that we don’t have a pay-to-play system in which taxpayer dollars are doled out in exchange for political payments. As it is, the politicians know who is donating and benefiting from political spending—and who to reward with lucrative contracts. The only people who don’t know are the American people. With disclosure, they’ll be able to keep an eye on contracting, and prevent corruption.

If the federal government decided only to give contracts to companies who donate to Democrats, this political favoritism would be exposed to the light of day and public criticism. That’s how transparency works.

The stakes are sky-high. According to a 2007 Congressional report, more than half of annual federal procurement spending—over $200 billion in new contracts—was awarded without full and open competition; $103 billion was spent on no-bid contracts. Of the federal dollars that were distributed after “full and open competition” in 2006, more than $47 billion was spent on contracts for which only a single offer was received. Without knowing who is paying for secret political ads, the public can’t tell if some of these billions are being handed out—with a wink—to the same companies that bankrolled federal officials’ bids for office.

In issuing a rule last year that bars political contributions from those seeking to do business with public pension funds, the SEC Chair announced that pay-to-play practices “are corrupt and corrupting” and that a contribution ban is necessary to prevent fraud and outright criminal behavior. Federal contract seekers are already banned from making certain contributions during the negotiation and performance of a contract. But Citizens United gave contractors a green light to spend money to influence elections in other ways. Now they do this spending in secret, hidden from the public. The executive order would close that gaping loophole.

This is far from the radical scheme opponents are painting it as. Some 17 states and many local jurisdictions have laws banning pay-to-play or requiring disclosure of spending by government contractors. Most of these laws—in place in the reddest of red states and bluest of blue states—were adopted after procurement scandals came to light. The threatened parade of horribles hasn’t come to pass in any of these states; rather, the laws have increased public trust in government.

In the 2010 elections, more than one-third of all independent spending was supported by anonymous donations, much of it apparently from corporations freed by Citizens United to open their treasuries to political spending. Unprecedented levels of money are expected to flood the 2012 elections. It is crucial to the health of our democracy that the public knows who pays for election ads, so they can judge whether those that pay the piper call the tune.

President Obama should sign this executive order without delay. Secret spending and pay-to-play politics have no place in our democracy.