By SUZANNE DERSHOWITZ and ANGELA CANTERBURY
Yesterday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) passed one of those euphemistically-named bills that does the opposite of what it says it will do. S.1100, the so-called "Keeping Politics Out of Federal Contracting Act," would actually ban public disclosure of certain election spending by contractors—thus leading to more pay-to-play by government contractors. Earlier this week, POGO and our allies sent a letter to Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) opposing S.1100.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) voiced similar concerns about the bill during yesterday’s committee meeting: “At a time where we’re trying to curb secret money in campaigns, I think this legislation takes away one of the few tools...I’ve said from the beginning, I don’t think corporations should have more power than people.”
POGO couldn’t agree more with Sen. Tester’s sentiments that passage of this bill would mean closing the door on an opportunity to require disclosure where there currently is none. It appears that his was the only recorded “no” vote on S.1100. We strongly urge other Senators to follow his lead in opposing this outright ban on transparency should it be considered by the full Senate.
This bill is part of an ongoing war of words over what shores up pay-to-play politics. In April 2011, a draft Obama Executive Order (EO) that would require federal agencies to collect information about federal contractor spending on elections was leaked. POGO supported the draft EO, but it was swiftly derailed by a number of government officials and some of Washington’s biggest business lobbies.
In the wake of Citizens United, unlimited spending on elections with far too little disclosure is eroding the quality of our democracy. The draft EO was intended to provide a much-needed dose of transparency—so that contractors would not be able to influence the awards process via secret political spending. But that intent was twisted until it was inverted.
The American League of Lobbyists (ALL) sent a letter to the White House requesting that President Obama withdraw the draft EO, arguing that linking this kind of disclosure to the contract bidding process would "inhibit one the most vital tools in the advocate's arsenal by creating fear of retribution for political donations." On May 26, Sen. Collins introduced S.1100, using the rationale that more disclosure and greater transparency would allow the administration to pick and choose contractors based on political contributions.
It is important to note that if it becomes law, this legislation would prohibit disclosure of unlimited political spending by contractors on the kind of issue advocacy allowed by Citizens United—contractor PAC contributions and individual contributions to candidates already required to be disclosed to the Federal Elections Commission would presumably continue.
There may have been an opportunity in S.1100 to require disclosure so long as the contribution is NOT linked to bidding, but instead this bill bans disclosure of independent expenditures on elections made throughout the time the contractor is receiving taxpayer dollars.
POGO’s Scott Amey has made the point that “S.1100 goes way past eliminating political spending disclosure related to bids and offers. It would prevent certain disclosures from any contractor working on a contract, which was not the intent of the election laws.”
Should corporations funded by taxpayers be able to steer elections in secret?
The following statement about the need for disclosure to ensure that citizens can judge political ads for themselves is straight out of the Opinion of the Court in Citizens United:
With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters. Shareholders can determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are ‘in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests.
The Court’s ruling rests on the foundations that “disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way” and “this transparency (is what) enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages. In banning disclosure and shutting out transparency, S.1100 threatens the citizenry’s ability to make informed decisions about the political messaging they receive.
In the words of Sen. Tester, “this has to do with our democracy. It is at risk as long as corporations can buy Senate seats without any transparency.”
Correction (5/21/2012): This post was corrected to clarify that S. 1100 would not prevent current disclosures to the Federal Election Commission of campaign contributions made by contractors that are required by election laws. This post was updated again on May 23.
Suzanne Dershowitz is POGO's public policy fellow. Angela Canterbury is POGO's director of public policy.