Dark money spending has risen dramatically in recent elections. But it’s especially concerning coming from federal contractors, since the billions of dollars at stake open glaring windows for corruption, and since contractors do everything from supply our military, to run our veterans’ care, to test air and water quality. The President can take a critical step by issuing an executive order that mandates government contractors disclose their political spending.
Who pays for American elections? Too often it is no longer possible to know. In significant part as a result of Citizens United and related U.S. Supreme Court decisions, shadowy groups can collect and spend vast sums on political advertisements without revealing their contributors. This is “dark money,” and since Citizens United in 2010, groups have spent well over $600 million of it in federal elections, much of it concentrated in a handful of competitive races.
In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama spoke out against this wave of dark money. He was right to do so. But it is time for more than words. The President has the power and authority to immediately require disclosure of political spending by government contractors. We urge him to act now.
Americans deserve to know who is trying to influence them with political advertisements, and what those advertisers want from the government. Political spending by a veterans’ group to elect a candidate, for instance, may signal something different than spending by a major defense contractor. Without knowing who is behind efforts to sway them, voters cannot make truly informed decisions, and we lose one of the last remaining checks on corruption by special interests.
The good news is the President can take a critical step to address this problem — without the cooperation of a Congress that has shown itself unable and unwilling to do so — by issuing an Executive Order to require government contractors to disclose all of their campaign contributions.
Such disclosure would not bring all dark money to light, but it would expose a type of dark money that should be especially troubling: campaign contributions that could have been given to influence a contract awarded by the government. The federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on such contracts every year. Disclosure would protect the integrity of the contract award process, and provide the public with confidence that taxpayer money is not being misused to reward big donations.
Moreover, we know that government contractors, their affiliates, and principals, are big contributors of disclosed money; there is every reason to believe a significant portion of the dark money that has entered our politics in recent years could be from them as well. Shining light on this spending will make our democracy as a whole more transparent — exactly what the President says he wants.