An Executive Order the Left and Right Can Agree On

04/02/2015 10:59 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015
Alena Yakusheva via Getty Images

Turn on the TV, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a news story about Americans uniting across ideologies. Our nation appears mired in controversy on every topic imaginable, from parenting to religious freedom to who should host the Daily Show.

One idea, however, has risen above the fray to achieve practically unheard-of heights of public support. An incredible 97 percent of Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, agree: the time has come to end government corruption in America.

It's a tall order. Dismantling corruption in Washington will require a veritable smorgasbord of legislative changes, from toughening rules governing super PACs to preventing lobbyists from bribing members of Congress with job offers.

If it seems unlikely that our current Congress, hot off the heels of the most expensive midterm election in U.S. history, will usher in reforms to limit special interest money in politics, that's because it is. Our alleged representatives are the proverbial foxes guarding the henhouse. If we want to pass meaningful, comprehensive anti-corruption legislation, we'll need to elect people committed to a different politics altogether.

That being said, there is one policy we could pass today, corrupt Congress and all: disclosure. All it would take is an executive order from President Obama. Simply put, Americans deserve to know where the money's flowing in government -- and who's doling out the cash.

One of the most outspoken supporters of disclosure is Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. In his Citizens United opinion, the moderate-conservative Kennedy hailed disclosure laws as an essential check on the vast sums of money flowing through our political system:

With the advent of the Internet, 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. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation's political speech advances the corporation's interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are 'in the pocket' of so-called moneyed interests.

In reality, however, many political contributions are not disclosed. This so-called "dark money" flows from wealthy individuals and companies to politically active nonprofits that aren't required by law to identify their donors.

Ironically, this dark money flourished in the wake of Citizens United, despite Kennedy's serenade to transparency, and disclosure laws didn't keep up. As a result, a corporation can effectively write a giant check aimed at propping up a member of Congress. Then that corporation can turn around and lobby the same member of Congress for a government contract. Washington insiders call this "pay to play." The rest of us call it bribery.

Without updated disclosure laws, federal contracting stops being a chance for our government to get the best private services for the lowest price. Instead, it devolves into a rigged scheme in which politicians and special interests fatten their wallets while the American people foot the bill.

In a functioning representative democracy, Congress would have updated its federal contractor disclosure rules long ago and stopped the bribery in its tracks. But given our representatives' failure to act, President Obama must pick up the anti-corruption torch.

Four years ago, the president toyed with a similar executive order. However, it contained one crucial difference that roused the ire of Republican leaders. In that version of the executive order, contractors would have been required to disclose their dark money contributions before receiving federal contracts. As Senator Mitch McConnell remarked at the time, "under the guise of 'transparency,' the Obama administration reportedly wants to know the political leanings of any company or small business... before the government decides if they'll award them federal contracts."

Conservatives understandably feared that the executive order would limit free speech. Businesses might stop making political contributions altogether in an attempt to avoid being denied contracts in the future. In an era in which money is deemed a form of speech, conservatives reasoned, the executive order could deter businesses from "speaking" in the first place.

The executive order under consideration today mitigates this concern -- and abides by regulations passed in the wake of the 2011 executive order attempt -- by only mandating disclosure after a business receives a government contract. This still achieves the fundamental goal of disclosure: citizens can see which elected officials are receiving the biggest contributions from contractors and decide for themselves whether the relationship seems corrupt.

It's a commonsense solution. Illinois, New Jersey, and Connecticut have all implemented similar state provisions. And robust disclosure is championed in the American Anti-Corruption Act, a template bill that garnered 86 percent support in Montana state poll commissioned by Represent.Us, with nearly identical support among liberals and conservatives.

President Obama has talked the talk on ending special interest influence in Washington since he first ran for office. He has also claimed to be the president of both the blue states and the red states. Many would argue that he hasn't done a particularly good job of either.

This is an unprecedented opportunity for President Obama to give the American people something we universally want, and to fulfill a longstanding campaign promise at the same time. Let's hope he takes it.

More than 50 organizations have signed onto a letter asking President Obama to issue an executive order requiring contractors to disclose their political spending. You can support them by attending a rally for disclosure; find out where your nearest rally is here.