Friday, March 18, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Ten billion dollars. That’s what some experts predict the 2016 election will cost (at least financially). And that’s just what we can track, because of the exorbitant rise of dark-money spending — mostly on negative ads that can make or break a candidate. This kind of political spending from groups that do not have to disclose their donors has risen by an astronomical 5,188 percent since 2004, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
This Sunshine Week, as news organizations and advocates reflect on the progress we’ve made on transparency and right-to-know reforms, it is crucial to urge President Barack Obama to sign an executive order that would shine a light on one tranche of money in politics by requiring disclosure of all political spending by businesses that receive taxpayer money through federal contracts. That way, voters would know who is behind efforts to influence their vote. Likewise, it would ensure that government contracts go to companies offering the most efficient and high-quality product or service, not those that pay to play.
Across the ideological spectrum, there is a growing agreement in America that the dominance of political money coming from a small group of vested interests must be curtailed. Last year, The New York Times reported that a mere 158 wealthy families contributed nearly half the funding for the 2016 presidential race. This concentration of political influence contributes to the sentiment behind the equal percentages of liberals and conservatives — 76 percent — who say money has more power than ever before, according to the Pew Research Center. Moreover, 87 percent of Americans believe our system should be reformed so a rich person does not have more influence than a person without money, and 91 percent of likely Republican 2016 Iowa caucusgoers reported that they were unsatisfied or “mad as hell” about the amount of money in politics, just 3 points shy of Democrats who said the same thing.
Our imbalanced campaign-finance system is a significant contributor to the electorate’s overwhelming feeling of disempowerment. One popular remedy with bipartisan support to fix this insidious problem is transparency. Public opinion is strongly in favor of it; 78 percent of both Democrats and Republicans in an Associated Press poll said they agree with requiring donor disclosure. Presidential candidates from both parties have spoken out in favor of more transparency, including Republican front-runners Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz.
The executive order that awaits the president’s signature is the one common-sense disclosure reform that would give Americans the right to know how much federal contractors are spending in our elections, and would help restore trust in our government. It would help ensure taxpayer-funded federal contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars are awarded based on merit and competition, not on which company can dole out the most campaign contributions. The executive order would cover a large number of companies, including 70 percent of the Fortune 100. And it would not run afoul of the ban Congress established on disclosure of political donations during the bidding process, instead requiring businesses to disclose after they have been awarded a government contract. It’s also not unprecedented: New Jersey, Utah and Delaware have similar rules on the books to discourage pay-to-play politics in their local democracies.
And yet, it languishes, even though it would not require a Supreme Court decision nor approval by Congress and enjoys broad public support — including by a resounding 66 percent of Republican voters. High-profile Republican political leaders echo this call, including:
• former Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-Utah), who said, “This executive order is about fairness for taxpayers.”
• former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), who decried the current system, saying: “Congress hands out billion-dollar checks to companies that have paid for preferential treatment; that’s not a free market. That’s not small or smart government. And it’s certainly not a cost-effective use of our money.”
• former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter, who lamented Obama’s delay in signing this order, saying, “I have no idea why this was not done by the president years ago given (White House) statements about the importance of disclosure.”
• Take Back Our Republic Executive Director John Pudner (who also ran Virginia Republican Rep. David Brat’s successful bid that ousted Eric Cantor from Congress) makes the conservative case for the executive order, arguing, “What makes this broken process so troubling is that in 2013 alone, the U.S. government spent roughly $460 billion on federal contracts with $177 billion going to just 25 companies. And all of those taxpayer dollars were handed out to contractors who have the ability to quietly funnel money to politicians and political parties without having to tell a soul about their contributions.”
• Ethics Counsel to President George W. Bush Richard Painter, who warns that without transparency in our campaign-finance system, foreign money could influence our elections, adding that “taxpayers have the right to know that their money is being spent wisely ... and the president needs to sign the executive order on this right away.”
Additionally, several Republican members of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus of elected officials speaking out for comprehensive campaign-finance reform sent the president a letter urging his swift action on this order, including Michael Castle (R-Del.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Jon Huntsman (R-Utah), Tom Kean (R-N.J.), Jim Leach (R-Iowa), Connie Morella (R-Md.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).
Democratic leaders, too, support the order. More than 130 members of the president’s own party in Congress have called on him to act, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and, in a recent op-ed, Rep. Steve Israel, the former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who this year announced his impending retirement from Congress because of the exorbitant time spent dialing for dollars.
And the people have spoken out in favor, with more than 1 million Americans publicly rallying behind it. More than 117,000 citizens petitioned the White House through its official “We the People” platform, making this petition one of the few to have earned an official response from the administration, albeit one that failed to do much more than thank signers for their concern.
It’s true this administration has many pressing priorities, including filling the Supreme Court vacancy, but for Obama’s promises and rhetoric concerning “better politics” to stick, the onus is now on him to ensure this executive order does not die on the vine. In his final State of the Union address, he said “we have to reduce the influence of money in our politics so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.” Obama should sign this order now to shine sunlight on secretive political spending and reorient our democracy back toward the people.
Gabriela Schneider is senior director of communications for IssueOne, an organization committed to putting everyday citizens back in control of American democracy by reducing the influence of money over politics and policymaking. Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the i