Crocodile Tears From Disclosure Opponents (The Hill)
Congressional Republicans are shedding “crocodile tears” about the supposed politicization of government contracting that could result from a draft executive order requiring contractors to disclose political contributions.
Since this spring, the White House has let the leaked executive order twist slowly in the wind and done little to counter the bogus claims being made about it.
In the meantime, shadowy 501(c)(4) groups have been raising and spending money from secret donors, with the Republican-oriented Crossroads GPS alone spending $20 million on attack ads. The Democratic-leaning (c)(4)s, like Priorities USA, are desperately trying to keep up.
The reality is that the ground-shifting Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC cleared the way for a new avenue in political spending. This new outlet allows corporations and unions to funnel money from their treasury funds into groups that run political ads on television and undertake other activities intended to influence the outcome of elections. The question is whether this new political spending should be disclosed like other political expenditures. The answer is, “yes.”
The claims that transparency will politicize the process are based on a raw partisan calculation. The newly allowed money spending will favor Republicans over Democrats, especially if it can be given in secret to groups to avoid a possible public backlash.
These crocodile tears should be ignored. Congress already plays the most prominent role in politicizing the federal procurement process through congressional earmarks, which brought us “bridges to nowhere” in Alaska and “roads to nowhere” in Florida. With an increased public spotlight on this congressional directed spending, some of the most egregious examples of misdirected spending taxpayers’ funds have been stopped. The increased transparency has helped make Members of Congress more accountable for their funding requests – especially by allowing the public to see the links between the requests and campaign contributions. While the process has indeed improved, the earmark process – especially in the area of defense and military spending -- remains at the top of the list when talking about the politicization of government spending.
Members of Congress also “politicize” the procurement process when they vote to force agencies to buy items that have been rejected. For example, 198 Members of Congress voted earlier this year to continue funding for a costly alternate engine for the F-35 fighter that the Pentagon doesn’t want – a vote that the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense labeled as “wasteful spending.” Ninety of those same Members ironically voted for a successful amendment offered by Rep. Tom Cole, former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, that seeks to prohibit the federal government from requesting additional campaign contribution disclosures from companies bidding on government contracts.
More troubling than the reckless rhetoric and obstructionist approach of the proposal’s detractors is their broader position. Opponents of the proposed Order claim that public access to basic information about how the government functions is not only improper, but also dangerous. In a letter to the President in May, members of Republican leadership characterized the attempt to secure increased disclosure as an act of political intimidation.
In fact, the result will be the opposite.
Laws that provide for transparency are critical to the healthy functioning of our democracy. For example, the standard-bearer of transparency, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), allows any person or group to request information from government agencies. While not perfect, it provides a mechanism for ensuring that the public knows how and why agencies spend their dollars in a particular fashion. But there is no real equivalent for contracting.
Requiring government contractors to disclose political contributions in a centralized database is an appropriate reaction to the newly permitted money that can now flow into campaigns post- Citizens United. This transparency will help empower the public to hold elected officials accountable for cronyism, advance the integrity of basic government functions, and secure a fundamental right for the public: the right to information about how and why their money is spent as it is.
Put simply, opponents of the Order are arguing that basic information should be withheld from the American public. They are asking for blind faith in the political community’s ability to police itself. Their high-minded rhetoric expressing concern over politicization masks the real outcome of inaction: tacit endorsement of a new flood of secret money flowing into American campaigns.
Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. She also heads up McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business. This opinion piece originally appeared in The Hill on September 7, 2011 under the title, "Shedding light on political spending". To read the piece at The Hill, click here.