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).

This proposed executive order on federal contracting is another part of this effort. It actually borrows provisions from the DISCLOSE Act, which would have also forced government contractors to disclose all political contributions. The order would require disclosure of contributions not only to candidates or parties, but “all contributions made to third parties with the intention or reasonable expectation that the recipient would use those contributions to make independent expenditures or electioneering communications.”

This would be a backdoor into finding out what interests are funding groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads or the US Chamber of Commerce, both of which spend massive amounts of money trying to influence elections but are not required to say who is paying the bill. The executive order would instead force the contributors to disclose the support, if they held or planned to bid on a federal contract—which many large corporations do. Thirty-three of the 41 companies listed as top 100 campaign contributors over the past twenty years hold federal contracts.

The executive order “would radically change the ability to follow the money during the upcoming elections,” the Sunlight Foundation told USA Today.

Naturally, groups like the US Chamber of Commerce oppose the executive order using the twisted logic that it would politicize the federal contracting process. A Chamber spokesperson told Politico that the order “lays the groundwork for a political litmus test for companies that wish to do business with the federal government” and is “less about disclosure than intimidation.”

Notably the Chamber isn’t opposing the fact that federal contractors spend money influencing the political process, but rather that they would have to disclose that spending—as if that’s where the politicization would come in.

Congressional Republicans are eagerly advancing that argument. Rep. Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, went on Fox News last week and agreed that the order  could “absolutely”  be “a way to punish the enemies of the White House.” He charged “This could be a Nixonian-type enemies list in the making by executive order.”

Issa then held a hearing last week titled “Politicizing Procurement: Would President Obama’s Proposal Curb Free Speech and Hurt Small Business?” in which he further blasted the proposed executive order as something that would have “a chilling effect on political participation.” Another Republican on the committee fulminated that “I have not seen anything as outrageous and as much of an exercise of naked political power than this executive order. I think it’s shameful, I think it’s disgusting, I think it’s despicable, I think it’s outrageous.”

Feingold criticized Issa in his e-mail, but also some Democrats who have joined them. McCaskill and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) submitted a letter to Issa’s hearing opposing the executive order. Hoyer also criticized the order in comments to the Associated Press.

Ultimately, however, the executive order and similar actions by the FCC, FEC, and SEC don’t depend on the support of legislators—that’s the whole point. Legislatively Obama could do more to pass a Fair Elections Now Act and call once again for passage of the DISCLOSE Act, but in the meantime, these executive orders may end up shining a lot more sunlight onto anonymous corporate political spending. 

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