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Democrats Call On White House To Close Citizens United Transparency Loopholes

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WASHINGTON -- A group of 60 House Democrats led by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) is urging the White House to sign a draft executive order that would require contractors to disclose their political contributions to politicians and outside groups free to spend on elections after the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.

In a letter to the White House, the group emphasized their strong support: "We stand ready to work with you on this important accountability measure for taxpayers, confident that more transparency, not less, places us on the right side of history. ... We believe that with public funds come public responsibilities, and anyone benefitting from taxpayer money has the responsibility to be fully transparent."

The draft executive order, which leaked out of the White House in April, would require any organization seeking a contract with the government to disclose publicly its political contributions to both lawmakers and candidates and to outside groups that are otherwise shielded from disclosure. The order would also extend to relevant executives and board members of groups seeking contracts.

The order was drafted after legislative options were exhausted following the 2010 defeat of the DISCLOSE Act, a much broader campaign transparency bill. The draft executive order only covers those organizations seeking contracts from the government. That would still affect a huge numberof corporations and even some unions that hold and seek government contracts.

Notable companies holding contracts include ExxonMobil, JPMorgan Chase, Koch Industries, News Corporation and General Electric. Even the AFL-CIO, the nation's biggest labor umbrella group, holds government contracts. All of these organizations would be required to disclose their political spending if the president signs the order.

The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling gave corporations and unions freedom to spend on elections by allowing them to use their treasuries to call for the election or defeat of a candidate. The decision included nonprofit organizations, which are not required to disclose their donors.

Groups like Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-linked nonprofit, spent $16 million on the 2010 midterm elections without disclosing any donors. In that same campaign cycle, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent a whopping $32 million on election ads, the most of any group. The Chamber is also not required to disclose its donors.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a total of 45 percent of money spent by outside groups on the 2010 elections went undisclosed to the public. This marked the high point for the amount of undisclosed money spent on an election.

"The public has the right to know who's trying to influence their vote," Ellen Miller, the executive director and cofounder of the Sunlight Foundation, said in a statement to HuffPost. "We agree with those who are calling on the president to finalize the executive order and make it official."

Tara Malloy, associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said there is "no indication that the disclosure problem that arose in 2010 is going to get any better."

"Although this contractor order is only piecemeal, it's certainly better than nothing," she said.

The Chamber of Commerce and conservatives attacked the draft executive order as purely political and an effort to enforce pay-to-play rules in the contracting realm. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Olka.) successfully attached an amendment to an appropriations bill earlier this month that would ban the White House from enacting any such executive order. That was the fourth time that House Republicans included a rider to an appropriations bill that would block the draft executive order.

On Wednesday, the Chamber stated that it would score the Cole amendment if it is attached to any other piece of appropriations legislation.

"The amendments reaffirm the principle, currently embodied in federal procurement laws, that the Executive Branch has an obligation to procure goods and services based on the best value for the American taxpayer, and not on political considerations," the Chamber said in a statement.

The 60 House Democrats writing to the president Thursday think otherwise: "Political expenditures are already well-known to those that make them and to the officials who benefit. With disclosure, the public will have access to this information as well, allowing them to judge whether contracts were awarded based on merit."

Many past notable scandals have involved the use of campaign contributions to influence the contracting process.

In 2008, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson resigned after it was revealed that he pressured companies seeking contracts to support President George W. Bush and had refused to sign contracts to companies that did not support the president. Jackson reportedly stated, "Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president? So they can use funds to try to campaign against the president?"

The Wedtech scandal of the late-1980s revealed an even more extreme web of contractor misdeeds. The tiny company used a network of political support aided by campaign contributions totaling $200,000 to the reelection of President Ronald Reagan and donations to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and other lawmakers to obtain huge government contracts. Their influence got Wedtech contracts through a small business program designed for minority-owned businesses, despite the fact that the company's majority owner did not hail from any minority group.

"The order would allow the public to ensure that subsequent policy decisions aren't just payoffs for that financial support," Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, said. "These contractors do everything that they can to get a leg up on their competitiors to enhance their portfolio and to provide benefits to their shareholders. It does really circle back to shining a light on government missions and programs that may be effected by this political spending."

Read the full text of the lawmakers' letter below:

2011-7-28 Disclosure Letter to President Obama

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