Holding the Government Accountable

Groups Seek to Ban Secret Election Support by Contractors

Our democracy is being threatened. Do you recall watching hours of TV ads during the last election season whose sponsors you couldn’t determine? Currently, individuals and companies, some of which receive federal contracts, can spend unlimited amounts to elect or defeat candidates with no disclosure requirements and no oversight. In an effort to shine more light on federal contractors who influence elections, 50 groups, including the Project On Government Oversight, have signed a letter urging President Obama to directly address the issue of secret political spending that can corrupt the federal contracting process. The letter asks the President to issue an executive order requiring contractors to disclose their election spending.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United and McCutcheon, we are left with a system that could corrupt our democracy. In those cases, the Court upheld the First Amendment right to free speech. However, the one safeguard that the Court touted is sorely lacking—disclosure. Citizens United held that “prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.”

Without election spending disclosure, contractors are left unfettered to influence the 2016 elections in the hope of receiving payback. Federal contracting, which should be based on a level playing field, is riddled with cozy relationships, backroom deals, and pay-to-play arrangements. Congress, which depends on the same spigot of campaign cash, is unfortunately part of the problem. This is why we are urging the President to require full disclosure of campaign spending and contributions by businesses that receive contracts. Executive action is our only hope to prevent powerful, well-funded companies from influencing our elections and, in return, being rewarded with lucrative contracts.

President Obama’s previous draft executive order requiring contractor political spending disclosure was met with strong resistance by House Republicans. It also resulted in an appropriations provision (see p. 612, sect. 735) preventing federal funds from being used to recommend or require any entity submitting an offer for a federal contract to disclose political spending.

POGO supported the intent of the draft executive order, but we were concerned that linking spending disclosure to the bidding process was not the best way to level the playing field. POGO even went so far as to make additional recommendations that would get to the heart of the pay-to-play problem.

Pay-to-play is for real. In 2014, the Sunlight Foundation released a report finding that between 2007 and 2012, 200 corporations spent a combined total of $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions. In return, these corporations received $4.4 trillion in federal business and support. In other words, for every $1 the companies spent on political influence and access, they got $760 from the federal government. This wasn’t news to POGO, which has closely followed and documented federal contracting, campaign finance, lobbying, and the revolving door and the problem of agency capture for years.

The Obama administration will need a wave of support, and that is what we hope POGO and the other signatories can provide. But we can’t do this alone. We need your help to urge the President to issue the executive order in order to preserve our democracy and ensure that secret political spending doesn’t corrupt the contracting process. We can’t have elected officials in the pockets of moneyed interests.