WASHINGTON -- Hidden within the mammoth omnibus appropriations bill crafted by House, Senate and White House negotiators is a 19-word change to a rider attached by House Republicans that would clear the way for President Barack Obama to issue an executive order requiring some disclosure of political contributions from government contractors.
The bill, which previously sought to ban the administration from carrying out an executive order requiring all companies submitting bids for contracts to disclose their political contributions, now only restricts the administration from requiring disclosure during the bidding process. The omnibus language does not prevent the administration from requiring disclosure from companies that have been awarded a contract.
"Today's compromise omnibus spending bill leaves the President free to require disclosure from any company receiving taxpayer dollars," Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the leading congressional supporter of the proposed executive order, said in a statement. "We should all agree that with public dollars come public responsibilities. In the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, it's even more important for us to stand up for transparency and disclosure. I hope the President takes this opportunity to finally issue his long-awaited Executive Order."
The change in language comes after a yearlong fight over a draft executive order that leaked from the White House in April. The proposed order would have required all entities submitting a bid for a federal contract to disclose all contributions made by the entity and its top officers to candidates, political parties, political committees, nonprofits and trade groups making independent expenditures.
The centerpiece of the draft executive order is the requirement that entities and their top officers disclose contributions made to any nonprofits or trade groups that could reasonably be assumed to be spending money in elections. The language seeks to close part of the disclosure loophole blown open by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling. That decision has allowed nonprofits, like Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, and trade groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to run electoral ads without disclosing their donors to the public.
Considering the broad range of groups that hold contracts with the U.S. government, from News Corp. to Koch Industries and the AFL-CIO to Exxon Mobil, an executive order like the one approved by Congress in the omnibus bill would greatly increase the amount of disclosure around currently undisclosed contributions.
The leaked draft sparked outrage in the business and lobbying community. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce led angry calls to force the White House to pocket the proposal. Various Republican members of Congress labeled the draft order an illegal attempt to inject politics into the contracting process. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) successfully attached an amendment to the appropriations legislation funding the executive branch that bans the White House from spending money on a new contribution disclosure requirement for companies submitting contract bids.
The Cole language was one of the final sticking points in negotiations between Republicans and Democrats over the omnibus bill, according to a congressional aide involved with the discussions. The Democrats ultimately won the 19-word concession to allow the president to require the disclosure of contributions by companies that have already won contracts.
"Pushing to keep the ban out of this bill is the first sign of life among congressional Democrats we've seen in a while," said John Wonderlich, policy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency nonprofit that has supported the language in the draft order. "If they're opposed to banning executive action, perhaps we can conclude it's still on the table."