ACTION ALERT: Striking a Blow against Citizens United by Shining a Light on 'Dark Money'
April 1, 2015
MoveOn & The New York Times & The Huffington Post
Something stunning is happening: We actually have a chance to strike a blow against Citizens United. As The New York Times reported last week, President Obama could unmask major corporate political donors with a simple executive order -- shining a light on political corruption and delivering a victory in the battle against money in politics. But the corporations and lobbyists flooding our democracy with unrestricted cash are fighting back.
"John Boehner and his corporate cronies just raised $17.5 million in one night. YES -- IN ONE NIGHT."
-- The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, March 31, 2015
ACTION ALERT: Striking a Blow against Citizens United
By Shining a Light on 'Dark Money'
(March 31, 2015) -- Something stunning is happening: We actually have a chance to strike a blow against Citizens United. As The New York Times reported last week, President Obama could unmask major corporate political donors with a simple executive order -- shining a light on political corruption and delivering a victory in the battle against money in politics.
However, the moneyed interests -- corporations that flood our democracy with unrestricted cash, and their lobbyists at the US Chamber of Commerce -- are fighting back, waging a media war to keep the president from signing new orders and to protect the status quo.
We can win this -- but to do so, we need to make sure the media, politicians, and especially the president hear us more clearly than they hear the corporate lobbyists.
More than 100,000 MoveOn members have already signed a petition calling on the president to take this action, and we'll be participating in rallies around the country in the days ahead to draw attention to this issue.
ACTION ALERT: Sign the petition here.
We are working with dozens of partner organizations right now to create an undeniable wave of public pressure. The background: The president is considering an executive order requiring federal contractors -- some of our nation's biggest corporations -- to disclose their political spending. If they get taxpayer money, taxpayers should be able to see how they spend it on political campaigns.
The key factor: This wouldn't require congressional approval -- it's within the president's power.
The state of play: A coalition of organizations that work to fight money in politics is close to collecting 500,000 signatures calling for this executive order -- over 100,000 signatures from MoveOn members.
This Thursday, April 2, there will be rallies all across the country demanding change and marking the anniversary of McCutcheon v. FEC, one of the Supreme Court decisions following Citizens United that struck down regulations on political spending.
The opportunity: We are creating a wave of public pressure that will give the president the momentum he needs to make this decision. But we need to keep that pressure up -- which is why we're investing now in the fight against big money corrupting our politics.
MoveOn members care deeply about the issue of money in politics and have donated, volunteered, signed petitions, and spoken out on this issue again and again. And we'll need to keep doing so -- very likely for years. Cleansing our democracy of the corrupting influence of money isn't going to be quick or easy. Which is why we need to seize victories where we can.
This executive order won't change everything. But it will shine a light on millions of dollars in corporate spending and give researchers the chance to track cash in this game of pay-to-play politics.
And it will prove that the work of activists can make a difference -- something we need to keep demonstrating throughout the long fight ahead.
President Obama Could Unmask Big Political Donors
Teresa Tritch / The New York Times
(March 23, 2015) -- Long before Ted Cruz became the first presidential contender to officially declare his candidacy, the competition for big-money donors was well underway.
Of all the individuals and groups aiming to curry favor and buy influence, perhaps none are more motivated than private-sector federal contractors. The United States spends about half a trillion dollars each year on goods and services from corporations large and small.
Each one of hundreds of corporate contractors and subcontractors has an incentive to contribute to political candidates and their parties because, quite simply, pay-to-play works. In a recent report, the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group, tallied the lobbying and campaign expenditures of 200 companies from 2007 to 2012.
In all, the companies spent a total of $5.8 billion and were awarded $4.4 trillion in federal business and support, or $760 for every $1 spent. Much of that was for aid related to the auto and banking bailouts, though fully $1 trillion of the total awards were paid under federal contracts to buy goods and services.
It stands to reason that giving-to-get has only worsened in the past several years, as the Supreme Court's decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon opened the floodgates to unlimited and undisclosed donations, the so-called "dark money" that now pervades the body politic.
President Obama has talked a good game against the corrupting influence of dark money. This month, more than 50 public advocacy and good government groups publicly challenged him to back up his rhetoric with action. In a letter to Mr. Obama, they called on him to issue an executive order requiring full disclosure of political spending by corporations receiving federal contracts, as well as by their directors and officers.
He should do so without delay. As the nation's chief executive, Mr. Obama has authority over federal contracting. Last year, he used the authority to significant effect by requiring federal contractors to pay their employees at least $10.10 an hour. He can and should use his power to require disclosure of political spending by contractors.
An executive order would help rescue elections and democracy from the damaging effects of secrecy and anonymity. It would also help redress the president's own complicity in that damage.
In 2008, even before the Supreme Court's decisions, Mr. Obama undermined the public financing system for presidential elections by refusing to use it. In 2012, after he had rightly denounced Citizens United, his re-election campaign nevertheless went all in for raising and spending unlimited sums, in effect joining rather than trying to beat the increasingly corrupt system.
Since then, Mr. Obama has continued to speak out against dark money, most incisively this year in the State of the Union speech and on the five-year anniversary in January of Citizens United.
It is past time for the president to bring his words and actions into line. An executive order to require disclosure of political spending by federal contractors is a good place to start.
Dark Money Casts a Sinister Shadow Across the Land
Robert Weissman / The Huffington Post
(March 2, 2015) – The amount of dark money -- election-related funds whose source remains secret -- has skyrocketed since the US 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, US Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) and US 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 US 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 US 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.
Robert Weissman is the president of Public Citizen
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