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Darrell Issa's Latest Investigation: The Threats of Government Transparency

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Rep. Darrell Issa, the crusading chairman of the House Oversight Committee, wants to be seen as a clean-government, waste-busting reformer. At the start of the 112th Congress, he started the House Transparency Caucus to "promote legislation that requires federal information to be freely accessible, as well as advocate for new initiatives that support transparency." He declared, "Sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant."

But curiously, since then Rep. Issa hasn't actually shown any interest in promoting government transparency or accountability. Instead, he has devoted his time at the head of the Oversight Committee to two things: asking big corporations which government regulations they don't like, and attacking the Obama administration for whatever it happens to be doing.

Today, those two priorities will meet in spectacular fashion in a hearing titled, "Politicizing Procurement: Would President Obama's Proposal Curb Free Speech and Hurt Small Business?" The topic? The executive order that the White House is reportedly crafting to require businesses seeking government contracts to disclose their political spending. The problem? The corporations that Issa caters to really don't like it.

The story of how this so-called "Politicizing Procurement" hearing came to be says a lot about post-Citizens United politics, and about the operating strategy of the House's young GOP majority. The two are codependent: the flood of corporate money that Citizens United unleashed helped to pave the way for the growth of the Tea Party movement's political influence and the massive GOP gains in the 2010 election. And the House's GOP majority, dependent on corporate special interest money for survival, is doing everything it can to preserve the new culture of unlimited corporate campaign spending.

Rep. Issa, through his work on the Oversight Committee, has been a leader in preserving the symbiotic relationship between corporate interests and the GOP. And in today's hearing he will be working to protect the root of that relationship -- the plentiful and secretive exchange of campaign cash.

Disclosure of campaign contributions hasn't always been anathema to Republican leaders. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner are both on record as having once supported increased disclosure of campaign contributions. But the first election after Citizens United, which opened up elections to unlimited corporate spending, was a game-changer. Spending from groups that don't disclose their donors went from one percent of total spending by outside groups in 2006 to 47 percent in 2010 -- and almost 90 percent of that undisclosed spending came from conservative-leaning organizations.

It's no surprise then that Republicans in Congress did everything they could last year to stop the heightened disclosure requirements in the DISCLOSE Act from becoming law, and are very unhappy with the White House's attempt to apply a small part of its transparency requirements to government contractors through an executive order.

The executive order reportedly under consideration is narrow but important. Currently, huge corporations taking billions of dollars of taxpayer money are funneling large portions of that money into efforts to determine who controls the government with whom they are contracting. To remedy this, the executive order would require all government contractors to disclose their own political spending and that of their most highly placed executives. Republicans in Congress are claiming that such disclosure would promote corruption by allowing executive agencies to see the political leanings of potential contractors. Such arguments are absurd. There is already undeniable waste and abuse in the $500 billion federal contracting business -- waste and abuse for which American taxpayers foot the bill. Increased public disclosure will make the federal contracting process more accountable to the public and cut down on opportunities for corruption, not add to them.

But Rep. Issa and his allies want to keep all these financial dealings hidden from the public. And it's personal: Rep. Issa's top career campaign contributor is the government contractor SAIC, and he's received tens of thousands of dollars from other top contractors, including at least two that have been caught up in corruption scandals. These corporations have massive political influence, yet Rep. Issa is attempting to paint them as victims of accountability efforts.

This upside-down logic of accountability, which claims that powerful corporations are being oppressed by a government that seeks to keep them responsible and accountable to the public, has become commonplace in Rep. Issa's hearings. Last week, when he held a hearing on the dangerous practice of hydraulic fracking, he wasn't exploring the harm that the practice does to citizens, but the harm that government regulations of the practice does to energy companies. When he held a hearing on Environmental Protection Agency regulations, it was to give a voice to the corporations that resist public health and safety regulations that interfere with their ability to maximize profits.

The "oversight" priorities of the House GOP, where powerful corporations are protected and individual citizens ignored, show the real impact of elections that are infused with secret corporate money. Unless we change our campaign spending rules, the voices of millions of Americans will continue to be drowned out by the voices of the few who write huge campaign checks -- and changing the rules will become harder and harder.