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Taxpayer Dollars And Disclosure In Politics

Memo Pad Politics

Taxpayer Dollars And Disclosure In Politics

Photo: President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio Look on. (NASA/Bill Ingalls via Flickr)

By Lisa Gilbert, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama couldn’t have been more transparent. He said, “(A) better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.”

With that sentence, he reaffirmed what we all know is the case: Voters deserve to know who is trying to influence their elected officials by contributing money. Without knowing who is behind political spending, we cannot make truly informed decisions, and we lose a critical check on corruption in our moneyed political system.

We applaud the president for speaking out against the wave of “dark money” that has overtaken U.S. elections, and our response is: “We agree. Act now.” The president should start by issuing an executive order to require federal government contractors to disclose all of their political spending. He has the power to do so at any time.

Dark money is a problem no matter where it comes from, and according to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than 40 percent of the outside expenditures in the 2014 elections were made by groups that did not fully disclose their donors. But dark money is especially troubling when it comes from government contractors. Secret contractor spending implies a pay-to-play culture in which the public cannot discern whether awards are going to those best able to play the political money game, or to those offering the most efficient and high-quality product or service.

Such a system has the potential to waste taxpayer dollars and further foster perceptions of government corruption. The government issues billions of dollars of contracts each year, ranging from buying office supplies for government workers, to purchasing planes for the army, to repairing our roads and bridges, to paying to clean up toxic chemicals and safeguard our air quality. These contracts should always go to those best suited to do the job, not to the companies willing to write the biggest check for dark money groups to support candidates.

We pay taxes with the trust that those dollars will be used for these public services and needs, and that they will be spent wisely to benefit society. In return, we deserve strict disclosure of political contributions from any company that has done business with the government to ensure we are not doling out tax dollars in response to political largesse.

Public Citizen recently examined the voluntary political disclosure policies of the 15 largest federal contractors using the 2014 Center for Political Accountability-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability. The CPA-Zicklin index measures the transparency policies of the 300 largest publicly traded companies in the S&P 500.

Public Citizen’s analysis, which included contractors with $129.1 billion due to them in fiscal year 2013, found that just 47 percent of the largest government contractors claim to fully disclose the details of their contributions to 501(c)(4) groups that may be used to influence elections. Just 33 percent fully disclose the details of such payments to trade associations and other 501(c)(6) groups. Just 27 percent fully disclose contributions to both types of groups.

This analysis is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that large contractors that do voluntarily disclose the sources of their funding haven’t seen cataclysmic repercussions visit them as a result. Second, it reaffirms that most government contractors do not now voluntarily disclose, and it shows how badly an executive order is needed to deepen public understanding of their expenditures in politics.

An executive order would be a real start toward a more completely transparent political system in which all contributions are disclosed online in real time to give voters the most reliable information possible.

If the president were to issue an executive order, citizens would be able to see which officeholders are the greatest beneficiaries of government contractor political giving. It would also help the public to feel confident in our elected representatives and head off further perceptions of pay-to-play corruption. An executive order would also set a good example for other government agencies considering taking action on the issue of corporate disclosure like the Securities and Exchange Commission.

We urge the president to act.

Lisa Gilbert is the director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division. She wrote this for CQ-Roll Call.

Photo: President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio Look on. (NASA/Bill Ingalls via Flickr)



  1. Dominick Vila March 19, 2015

    The last thing the party that engages in acts of treason wants is transparency. Everything they have done since President Obama inauguration involved policies designed to undermine the ability of our president to govern, often at the expense of our national security, national credibility, and our well being. Incredibly, and against all logic, the GOP remains a viable party for those whose prejudices and hatred drive them to the point of endorsing or ignoring acts and policies that are against the best interests of the United States and the American people. As bad as Iran-Contra, the near collapse of the S&L industry, the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2007, the fraud and abuse caused by deregulation, the invasion of Iraq, and torture were, what is even more perplexing is the fact that after Mitch McConnell acknowledged that the policies of obstructionism that delayed our economic recovery and caused so much pain and misery to the American people, and even after 47 Republican Senators wrote a letter to the leaders of Iran encouraging them not to trust an incumbent U.S. President, and reminding them that any treaty or accord signed by such president would not be ratified by Congress and repealed by the next President – after declaring Iran a hub of terrorism – Republicans continue to support them, and the media continues to look for excuses, such as redefining treason by claiming that since our GOP heroes in Congress did not violate any existing laws, treason is not really treason, and we should all ignore what the GOP has done to our economy, our national security, our fiscal integrity, and our well being. Amazing!

    1. Independent1 March 20, 2015

      I too agree that what Cotton and the 46 other senators did was bordering on treason. But for those who feel that’s to harsh, consider that General Eaton only wishes that Cotton and the 46 other participants were members of our military; because there – they would all be court marshaled and tried for Mutiny:

      General Eaton has some pretty harsh words for the 47, especially Cotton (I hesitate to use the word Senator in referring to any of these participants as I don’t feel they deserve the title):

      General Eaton feels the 47 definitely deserve to be punished for their mutinous action: See this from Politicususa:

      General Eaton said “I would use the word mutinous. I do not believe these senators were trying to sell out America. I do believe they defied the chain of command in what could be construed as an illegal act.” However, since it is unlikely there are no precedents to prosecute the miscreant 47, one seriously wishes that Cotton and his coup-cohorts were active military so they could be summarily arrested and court marshaled by a military tribunal for mutiny and face the harshest possible military punishment.

      General Eaton explained why, as former military, he had no reservations asserting that Cotton willingly violated more than protocol or the Logan Act. Eaton said “What Senator Cotton did is a gross breach of discipline, and especially as a veteran of the Army, he should know better. I have no issue with Senator Cotton, or others, voicing their opinion in opposition to any deal to halt Iran’s nuclear progress. Speaking out on these issues is clearly part of his job. But to directly engage a foreign entity, in this way, undermining the strategy and work of our diplomats and our Commander in Chief, strains the very discipline and structure that our foreign relations depend on, to succeed. The breach of discipline is extremely dangerous, because undermining our diplomatic efforts, at this moment, brings us another step closer to a very costly and perilous war with Iran. I think Senator Cotton recognizes this, and he simply does not care. That’s what disappoints me the most. I expect better from the men and women who wore the uniform.”


      1. Dominick Vila March 20, 2015

        In addition to being an example of political mutiny, what they did, after declaring Iran a hub of terrorism, is as close to betraying our country as you can get. No wonder the GOP is frantically trying to divert attention to other issues and trying to play down what these traitors did by citing the work done by official envoys, peacekeepers, and fact finding Congressional teams.

      2. dpaano April 8, 2015

        As a woman who DID wear the uniform and DOES believe in the chain of command, I have to agree with General Eaton!!!

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