In an email blast to supporters this week, former Sen. Russ Feingold decried “legislators who are unwilling to stand up to corporate power,” including two prominent Democrats—House Whip Steny Hoyer and Sen. Claire McCaskill. “Some Democrats are joining Republicans in pressing to keep the cycle of political money and federal contracts hidden,” he wrote.
The Beltway press was momentarily amused by the intraparty warfare, but the skirmish is actually part of a larger, crucial effort to force stronger disclosure of political contributions in a post-Citizens United world.
At issue was a draft executive order being circulated by the White House that would compel all federal government contractors, and those submitting bids for government contracts, to fully disclose information about their political contributions.
The proximate reason for the order is to strengthen transparency in the federal contracting process, through which billions of taxpayer dollars are spent based on the decisions of political appointees. The text of the draft order says the measure is needed to “[address] the perception that political campaign spending provides enhanced access to or favoritism in the contracting process.”
In context, however, the order is part of a larger White House effort to use executive branch powers to increase disclosure of political contributions as it approaches a presidential election in which hundreds of millions of dollars will surely be spent, much of it anonymously, to influence the outcome.
After the Senate failed to pass the DISCLOSE Act last year, which would have increased transparency of corporate and special-interest money, the White House began exploring its options to create disclosure rules on its own. In March, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a decree strengthening the rights of shareholders to find out what political activities the parent company is supporting.
Democratic members of the Federal Elections Commission, meanwhile, support rules that would make anonymous contributions to outside groups public, and that would limit political spending by US subsidiaries of foreign companies. At the Federal Communications Commission, two Democratic members are supporting a proposal that would require the funders of political advertisements to be identified on-air. (The Democratic chairman, Julius Genachowski, hasn’t voiced an opinion on the measure yet).