The amount of dark money -- election-related funds whose source remains secret -- has skyrocketed since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, rising from a miniscule $5.2 million in 2006 to $173 million in 2014 (or more than $300 million with a less-stringent definition).
But while Citizens United was the trigger for the explosion in dark money, there's nothing about the decision that protects secret election spending. Indeed, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the decision, seemed to hold the mistaken belief that all election-related contributions are disclosed.
But it's plain enough that disclosure is not going to happen on its own. On the anniversary of Citizens United, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) and U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) reintroduced the DISCLOSE Act, which would require the disclosure of all election donations. Congressional Republicans have refused to support the DISCLOSE Act, however, even though Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and many others long championed full and complete disclosure -- before Citizens United.
So while we desperately need the DISCLOSE Act, we can't wait for Congress. President Barack Obama, who in the 2015 State of the Union address decried the degrading effect of unaccountable outside money on our political discourse, must act. As a key first step to shining a light on dark money, the president should issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose their election-related spending.
We need a dark-money executive order to advance the integrity of our democracy, as well as to protect the basic integrity of our government. To prevent both bribery and contractor shakedowns, federal law prohibits government contractors from making contributions to candidates, political parties and political committees. Yet contractors may still contribute to dark-money trade associations (like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) and nonprofits (like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS).
Here's one of the things about dark money: The funding flows are secret from the American public. But there's no reason to assume that candidates don't know who is spending on their behalf.
And while Citizens United was premised on the notion that because outside spending in elections is not coordinated with candidates, it cannot have a corrupting influence, that idea was laughable at the time and now thoroughly refuted by experience.
So there is very good reason to fear that dark-money expenditures will lead legislators to influence the contracting process improperly, and that dark money expenditures will purchase favoritism in the contracting process.
Indeed, why exactly do government contractors spend so much money on politics? The largest government contractor, Lockheed Martin, spends about $15 million a year on lobbying. That's not because of the company's passionate concern about education policy. It's because the company wants to keep the contracting dollars flowing.
Exacting standards are needed for government contracting because the dollar stakes are so high and the danger of corruption is so rife. At any time, contractor scandals abound. Recent weeks have highlighted a Mississippi county supervisor who allegedly took bribes to steer millions in utility contracts, a Postal Service inspector charged with taking kickbacks for mail-delivery contracts, and a major sex-for-contracts scandal in the Navy.
The bare minimum that must be done to deter dark-money corruption of the contracting process is to shine a light on the spending, so that everyone can follow the money trail.
Four years ago the Obama administration considered an executive order in this area and met with a hysterical response from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We will fight it through all available means," Bruce Josten, the chief lobbyist for the Chamber, told The New York Times, in one of the more remarkable comments in memory. "To quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table." Under pressure, the administration tabled the proposal.
Now, five years into the post-Citizens United era, it's past time to revive the modest initiative. Dark money is threatening to corrupt government contracting, and it's surely corrupting our democracy. It is enabling a very small number of corporations and the super-rich to spend enormous sums on our elections, to hide their involvement from the public, and to run the kinds of vicious attack ads that almost everyone agrees is degrading our politics.
Many other measures needed are needed, of course. Just in the area of dark money, the Securities and Exchange Commission should promptly issue a rule requiring all publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending. The Internal Revenue Service should issue a rule clarifying that nonprofits and trade associations are permitted only to engage in minimal election-related activity. And it sure would be nice if Mitch McConnell and others would demonstrate that their constant invocation of campaign contribution disclosure in years past wasn't simply a ploy to derail more fundamental reform.
But the first step, one that requires agreement only from the president, is an executive order on contractor disclosure. Today more than 50 organizations called on the president to take action.
"We're now living in a Wild West campaign spending world," the groups wrote in a letter. "It is imperative that you act. There is no single solution to the problem of Big Money dominance. In fact, there are many desperately needed solutions. Today, we urge you to act on one option immediately - tackling the issue of corruption in government contracting."
President Obama, it's time to shine a light on dark money.
You can add you name to those calling on President Obama to take action here.
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