By Elizabeth Kennedy, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
Often, political spending by those seeking to do business with the government takes place in the dark, as front groups with innocuous names run harsh political attack ads without revealing the true source of their funds. When voters don’t know where the money is coming from, they can’t detect which deals are truly in the public’s interest, and what is improper political payback.
Since the draft executive order leaked this spring, we’ve seen multiple stories of political spending leading to political favoritism, most recently involving Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. The New York Times reported that “a review of Mr. Perry’s years in office reveals that one of his most potent fund-raising tools is the very government he heads.” Bloomberg reported that “Perry has a public record of rewarding his political donors with jobs and state contracts.” For example, a major Perry donor received an environmental permit for a radioactive waste dump, despite concerns it would contaminate a critical source of drinking water. Three members of the technical review team resigned to protest the permit’s approval. One of the commissioners, (who, though appointed by Perry, voted against the permit and then did not rejoin the commission), said “[e]verybody was aware that this was an important item for the people that were seeking the license as well as for the governor’s office.”
The same “crony capitalism” that infects Texas politics can threaten the federal contracting process. Without transparency, corruption in the contracting process can lead to sweetheart deals that benefit the recipient of the contract and the recipient of the political contributions at the expense of taxpayers. The executive order would unearth some of the millions of dollars in secret spending that is playing an ever greater role in our political system.
Back in May, Issa characterized the administration’s attempts to shed light on financial relationships between government contractors and the beneficiaries of their electoral spending as “Chicago hardball politics that will clearly lead to a chilling effect on contributions by those required to participate.” But companies seeking to curry favor with governmental representatives are not shy about letting them know they’ve provided financial support in one way or another. The only people currently in the dark are the American people. Issa himself has lobbied executive agencies for the types of loans he is now investigating, but he now says this is “a back-door easy way to end up with corruption in government.” We need the executive order to keep these financial relationships out of backrooms and expose political spending to the light of day.
And Issa has company — Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) is also examining whether political spending played a role in actions taken by the White House. In a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, Hall wrote that “[w]hile some may call it a coincidence . . . we remain skeptical that shortly after two separate sets of meetings and meeting requests, LightSquared employees made five-figure donations to the Democratic Party.” This is the same information that the executive order would bring to light about political spending by companies. Expanding the information available to citizens, watchdog groups, and Congress itself will enable these groups to uncover any questionable contracting decisions linked to financial relationships.
Critically, requiring the disclosure of political spending by those seeking government contracts will not only fight corruption, but also prevent the appearance of corruption and political favoritism, which has a corrosive effect on confidence in government. And knowing that these financial relationships will be disclosed will help deter any contracting decisions not made in the best interest of the American people.
The draft executive order states, “It is incumbent that every stage of the contracting process – from appropriation to contract award . . . be free from the undue influence of . . . political favoritism.” The recent actions of Issa and Hall indicate that, though they both voted to block the effectiveness of the executive order should it be signed, they support this goal. President Obama should take this opportunity to sign the executive order and increase transparency and accountability in political spending to prevent political favoritism.
Elizabeth Kennedy serves as counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.