It didn't take long for Republicans to seize on President Barack Obama's proposed executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political donations to third-party groups as supposed Chicago-style, bare-knuckled Democratic politics. That's right — to the GOP and its supporters, expecting companies to admit to spending money on elections is a low blow.
But that's what the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling has wrought. Corporations and their allies now expect to spend unlimited sums on elections, funneling the money through groups that support or oppose federal candidates. To them, anything less is simply un-American.
What the White House is considering is no solution to the myriad problems created by the court's regrettable decision, but it could go a long way toward fixing them. Congress tried to pass a solution last year, the DISCLOSE Act, introduced by Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, but it was hung up in the Senate under the threat of a Republican filibuster.
What's particularly galling about the criticism of the proposed executive order is that it's been cast as an example of "pay-to-play" politics. The Republicans claim Democrats could make sure those applying for federal contracts are not donating to GOP causes.
In reality, transparency requirements like those proposed by the White House actually protect against pay-to-play by forcing contractors to reveal their donations. Without that requirement, a company — Halliburton, let's say — can direct millions of dollars to get a member of Congress or president elected without anyone but those involved knowing about it.
Is it possible that Democrats are motivated by self-interest? Absolutely. Republicans are far more likely to be the chief beneficiaries of backdoor corporate largesse. That's why the executive order is causing such a fuss with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its ilk.
But that doesn't make secret political donations right. If Republicans want to level the playing field, let them pass a campaign finance reform law in Congress that covers not just federal contractors but all who give to third-party groups, including unions and other traditional Democratic allies.
Of course, that raises the most nonsensical of GOP objections to the proposal, that it would chill free speech. Again, the implication is that a contractor who reveals a third-party political donation to the wrong cause (by which they mean giving to Republicans while a Democrat is in the White House) would be made to suffer.
Really? If Joe Bag-of-Doughnuts gives $50 directly to a candidate for federal office, that modest donation must be disclosed to the world. That's the law. Why should corporations be able to hide behind third-party groups when they give $50,000 or $50 million? Exactly whose free speech is being slighted? Wouldn't any favoritism shown to companies that make political donations and subsequently land government contracts only be revealed by disclosure? The converse is also true — if the Obama White House suddenly stopped giving contracts to firms that donated to Republicans, it, too, would become public knowledge.
Should President Obama sign the executive order, it would no doubt touch off a political firestorm and be challenged in the courts. That probably wouldn't be helpful to the current efforts to bring the parties together to come up with a bipartisan budget agreement — a strategy that doesn't seem to be bearing much fruit anyway.
But with potentially billions of dollars in contributions at issue, pushing for greater transparency ought to be the administration's minimum response. Certainly, there was nothing in the Citizens United decision that would preclude reasonable disclosure. Some donors already publicize such contributions on a voluntary basis.
In the end, revealing the political activities of companies that do business with the government can only lead to one thing: better government. That's why President Obama needs to safeguard the 2012 election and sign the executive order.