WASHINGTON -- An executive order being crafted by the Obama administration that would require government contractors to disclose campaign contributions would have a particularly blunt impact on one of the White House's most frequent adversaries.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby that has fought the president on a host of legislative fronts, has been particularly piqued about his administration’s most recent campaign finance maneuver. And for good reason.
At least 55 of the group's companies had contracts with the federal government in 2010, according to data available on Transparency.gov and provided to the Huffington Post by U.S. Chamber Watch, a critic of the organization. Those range from the massive -- Lockheed Martin ($34 billion in contracts) and Pfizer ($979 million) -- to the relatively obscure -- Action Chemical ($8 million) and Wegmans Food Markets ($4.5 million).
These businesses, to be sure, represent just a small sliver of the Chamber’s membership, no matter how the information is measured. But the same firms awarded government contracts also, in all likelihood, help fill the Chamber’s coffers. In all, the 55 groups highlighted by U.S. Chamber Watch earned $44 billion in contracts in 2010.
Under the draft executive order being crafted by the White House, contractors will have to disclose the contributions that they give not just to politicians, political parties or committees, but to “third party entities” (aka groups like the Chamber) as well.
"If you are going to get disclosure of funds being given to pay for campaign expenditures, you need to get disclosure of the contributions that are being used by third party groups to make those expenditures,” said Fred Wertheimer, the Founder and President of Democracy 21, a group that promotes greater donation disclosure. “Otherwise, the system is never going to work.”
The Chamber, naturally, has been in an uproar over a possible requirement that donors reveal the nature of their contributions. In a blog posted on its own website, Chamber Communications Director Blair Latoff accused the White House of instituting a system in which “one’s political leanings is a prerequisite for determining the qualifications of a company to do business with the government.”
The obvious danger of this is that it will lead prospective businessmen and businesswomen to a choice no American should ever be forced to make: ‘Do I support the party in power in the hopes I can continue my livelihood or do I support the candidate I believe will do the best job?’ This doesn't apply to only the large contractors that immediately come to mind. It also includes everyone from the zipper maker for military uniforms to the daycare facility operator for federal workplaces to landscapers who service a National Park. The implication is clear – pony up for the good guys or risk paying the price. As Senator Mitch McConnell aptly said yesterday “No White House should be able to review your political party affiliation before deciding if you’re worthy of a government contract. And no one should have to worry about whether their political support will determine their ability to get or keep a federal contract or keep their job.
Disclosure advocates like Wertheimer scoff at this argument, calling it a red herring. If one does business with the federal government, another counter-argument goes, it’s in the taxpayer's interest to see how that contractor spends its funds.
To date, that type of disclosure has only come through leaks or reporting. During the crafting of health care legislation, for example, many assumed major private health insurance companies funneled money through the Chamber as a means of attacking reform without putting their names behind the ads. Only after the bill passed did Bloomberg reveal that private insurers had given the business lobby $86 million to oppose the law.
"The U.S. Chamber exists solely to shield big banks, health insurance companies, and outsourcers from public scrutiny as they fight laws that would protect small businesses,” argued Christy Setzer, a U.S. Chamber Watch spokeswoman. “The Chamber and their big money friends have 44 billion reasons to oppose disclosure laws-- and that's exactly why we need them so badly.”