In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama decried secret money in elections, saying he wanted to see a “better politics,” where we “spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.”
The President has a critical opportunity to take action equal to his words by signing an executive order to ban dark money from businesses that receive federal contracts. Currently, corporate behemoths like Chevron, Verizon, Lockheed Martin, and many others, profit from tax-payer subsidized contracts. At the same time, these corporations can secretly spend unlimited amounts of money to elect (and re-elect) the same lawmakers who can be responsible for awarding those contracts. It's an ongoing cycle of potential play-to-play, and the loser is the average American citizen.
But with a stroke of his pen, the President can shine a light on such potential conflicts of interest and require government contractors to disclose their political spending. With that order, we could make sure that politicians aren’t handing out contracts and favors in exchange for campaign cash.
Earlier this month, more than 50 organizations, including Common Cause, wrote a letter urging the President to sign such an order. Since then, more than 500,000 Americans have signed petitions calling for immediate action. And now, on Thursday April 2nd, Americans across the country, including here in Boston, will rally at 57 events in over 50 cities to show support for our right to know what federal contractors are spending to sway elections and help secure their own future government contracts.
The impact of such an order could be huge. An analysis by Public Citizen of the 15 largest federal contractors, which received $129 billion in contracts in 2013 alone, found that only 27 percent fully disclose their political expenditures. And an analysis by Common Cause found that PAC spending by the top five corporate recipients of federal contracts – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman – nearly tripled in the last decade, from $6.8 million in 2004 to $17.7 million in 2014. If companies are raking in that kind of money from our tax dollars, don’t we at least deserve to know how they’re trying to influence the political process that directs all that business their way?
Surely everyone agrees that government contracts should go to the businesses that provide the highest quality, most cost effective products, not those that succeed by playing the political money game.
Of course, passing legislation at both the state and federal level to end all dark money is also necessary. Here in Massachusetts, the legislature took a huge step in that direction last year. In 2014, there was much more timely information available to voters about super PACs and shadowy 501-c4 organizations spending money in Massachusetts elections thanks to their action. But there are still a few loopholes left to close, and we are hopeful that the legislature will address them this year. In Congress, the federal Disclose Act, and new legislation to restrict the coordination between super PACs and the candidates they support, are much more of a long-shot. That’s why President Obama’s action to add transparency to federal contractors is so critical.
Regardless of the issue involved– health care, climate change, economic opportunity, etc. – the dominance of wealthy special interests prevents our government from acting in the public interest far too often. Shining a light on big money in politics is just one critical step in our shared task of resuscitating our democracy. President Obama can take that first step. On this April 2nd, the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, help us pressure him to do so.