Why Federal Contractors Should Disclose Political Contributions

April 1st 2015

Harsha Gowtham
Jonah Minkoff-Zern

Dozens of rallies will be held across the country tomorrow to urge President Obama to take executive action and bring transparency to pay-to-play politics in Congress.

The president has already expressed his support for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's flawed Citizens United ruling, which has led to the rise of SuperPACs and dark money. He's also called for full disclosure of political donations. But with Republicans in Congress standing resolutely against transparency in our government, going so far as to filibuster the Disclose Act in 2010 and 2012, it appears that Congress is stalled by entrenched special interests. Any progress requires that the President take bold, unilateral action.

Currently, companies that receive government contracts don't have to disclose all of their political donations. Due to a loophole opened by Citizens United, companies can make anonymous donations to social welfare organizations and trade associations that, in turn, can spend that corporate money on elections. There is tremendous concern that the companies, including Chevron, Verizon, Lockheed Martin, and companies owned by the Koch Brothers, providing the funding for these campaigns are rewarded with the most lucrative contracts. While federal and state laws exist to prevent pay-to-pay corruption, these laws have become toothless without full disclosure of all campaign spending.

That's why we at Public Citizen believe President Obama should issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose all campaign spending.

How real is the concern for corruption?

These concerns have been validated time and time again. For example, the largest government contractor, Lockheed Martin, spends about $15 million a year on lobbying. That's not because of the company's passionate concern about education policy. It's because the company wants to keep the contracting dollars flowing.

But it is difficult to blame corporations or politicians for a system that rewards cronyism. A poll of top corporate leaders shows that 75 percent consider campaign contributions to be “pay-to-play,” while 90 percent favor limiting individual, corporate, and outside contributions for electioneering. With even elite donors understanding the reality of our political climate, it is time for the president to act.

Who is fighting this push for transparency?

There is strong opposition comes from the very corporations that benefit from the status quo. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce dismissed the findings of this bipartisan poll and promised to fight any attempt by the president to create transparency. The chief lobbyist for the Chamber told the The New York Times that  “we will fight it through all available means […] To quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table.”

What can convince the President to take action?

Fighting back against these entrenched special interest groups is a difficult task and the president must demonstrate courage to take them on.  As a candidate, President Obama promised that he would fight for more transparency in government, but he has not followed through. For years, he has considered an executive action on this very issue, but has not yet done so due to the threat of the Chamber of Commerce. He must now turn hesitancy into concrete action. With rallies on April 2nd, the public can demonstrate urgency for the issue. Participate in a rally nearest you or join tens of thousands of Americans in signing a petition so that Washington and K-Street will take notice.

Harsha Gowtham and Jonah Minkoff-Zern are a Fellow and Campaign Co-Director at Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People Campaign.