05/12/2011 01:22 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2011

The U.S. Chamber's Big Lie on Election Spending

A few weeks ago, the Obama administration circulated a draft executive order that would require companies seeking federal contracts to disclose their political spending, including the new spending that the Supreme Court permitted in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Citizens United gives corporations the right to spend unlimited sums to elect candidates. They can spend the money themselves or funnel it through independent groups (corporations still can't give directly to candidates or parties in federal elections -- not that it matters anymore).

Obama's proposed executive order

The Obama proposal is modest. The better approach, in force in eight states and several localities, is to outlaw legalized bribery from government contractors outright, not just to require that it be disclosed to the public. But the proposed executive order is necessary to prevent most political spending from scurrying out of the sunlight.

Here's another reason why the order is modest: The law already requires corporations to disclose all other election spending -- mainly contributions by management to the company PAC, and PAC contributions to candidates and parties. Under the law, the new Citizens United money should be disclosed too -- except that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) opened up a large loophole that directly contradicts the statutory disclosure requirement. In effect, the executive order would merely take a step toward closing this loophole.

And here's why the order is necessary: The FEC's loophole is so big that you can drive most corporate election spending through it. The loophole lets companies can spend unlimited amounts on elections in the dark, directly from the corporate treasury. If you're a CEO who wants to buy a fat government contract, why would you spend your own money, in a way that lets the public see your campaign contributions, when instead you can use your company's money and spend it without the public knowing?

To bring this back to the executive order, most major U.S. corporations are government contractors. The U.S. government doesn't just buy stealth bombers; it buys pencils, toothbrushes and telephones. Requiring disclosure by government contractors sweeps back in most major corporations. It's a good approach.

The Chamber's lies... and intimidation

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its allies hate the proposed executive order, for at least two reasons. First, the order would stop major corporations from legally buying, bribing, and intimidating elected officials in secret. You may like the idea of basing government contracts on merit, not political power, but the Chamber does not. And you might like the idea of elected officials serving their voters rather than their corporate underwriters, but the Chamber disagrees with that too.

Second, the Chamber itself is a major player in electoral politics. The order would require the Chamber to disclose the contributions that it receives to run election ads.

Of course the Chamber and its allies can't admit their real reasons for opposing the order, so instead they're just lying about it: According to the Chamber, the Obama administration wants contractors to disclose election spending so the administration can "retaliate" against those whose political views it disfavors. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he's concerned that the administration wants to "silence or intimidate political adversaries' speech."

These claims could hardly be more distant from the truth. Government officials already know who's trying to influence them by spending money on elections. The spenders, mostly corporations and wealthy individuals, make sure of that. If you're trying to bribe a politician to do you a favor, it helps to make sure they know who you are. So under current law, the only people who won't know what's going on are the voters. Major corporations want to be able to intimidate and retaliate against elected officials who don't do their bidding -- not the reverse.

Don't just take my word for it. For one thing, a Public Citizen survey released Wednesday found Democratic Hill staffers beginning to admit being influenced by the fear of election spending against their bosses.

And then there's the New York Times' coverage of the Chamber's reaction to the draft executive order: The Chamber, said R. Bruce Josten, its chief lobbyist, "is not going to tolerate" the proposal. He elaborated, "We will fight it through all available means... to quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table."

It's not every day you hear a sophisticated Washington lobbyist talk openly about waging war on the president of the United States as if he's a dictator who slaughters his own citizens. You generally only talk that way if you're delusional -- or maybe drunk on power.

Let's just say the Chamber knows a thing or two about intimidation.

Sign a petition urging President Obama to stand up to the Chamber and sign the executive order.

(This post was edited on 5/12/11 to correct two small editing errors and make a sentence clearer.)