Watchdogs urge action on White House's contractor donation disclosure order

Ethics watchdogs are pressuring President Obama to sign off on a draft executive order that would force government contractors to disclose their political contributions.

In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday, a coalition of groups expressed support for the draft order that has begun to attract opposition from trade associations.

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If implemented, the order would compel government contractors to disclose their contributions to third-party groups — donations that are now hidden and became controversial during the last election.

“In order to keep in check actual or perceived corruption in government contracting, it is imperative that there be full disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures by federal government contractors,” the letter states.

Several groups and Republican lawmakers have begun to speak out against the draft order. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable have released statements opposing it, saying the order would bring politics into what is supposed to be a nonpartisan federal contracting process.

The Center for Competitive Politics, which is typically against campaign finance reform efforts, wrote a separate letter to Obama on Wednesday opposing the order.

Campaign finance watchdogs said the executive order is similar to the Disclose Act, transparency legislation that failed to pass Congress last year that would have mandated disclosure of political donations to nonprofit groups.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said that if the order had been in place during the last election, government contractors who contributed to the $33 million that the Chamber spent on electioneering communications would have been disclosed.

“That, in a nutshell, is the reason,” Wertheimer said.

The groups touted an online petition that gathered signatures in favor of the disclosure order and released a separate letter to Obama signed by more than three dozen business leaders who also back it. 

Nonprofit groups spent millions campaigning in the last election without disclosing their donors. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has contributions to parties and candidates disclosed to the public, but donations to nonprofit groups active in politics are not.

The increased election-year spending came after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January last year. The ruling allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on political activities, including expressly advocating for or against a candidate’s election.

In response to the court ruling, Democrats in Congress and the White House tried to pass the Disclose Act, but it stalled in the Senate after being passed by the House last year.

While the Disclose Act would have disclosed every donor, the draft order would achieve some of that transparency by having at least government contractors reveal their contributions to outside groups. Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said companies that have federal government contracts are in almost every industry sector.

“Though modest, it is not inconsequential,” Weissman said about the order.

Ethics watchdogs said the president should act quickly and sign the order. They are concerned that opposition to the draft will continue to grow the longer it sits in limbo.

“We think the president ought to sign it, and sign it quickly,” said Bob Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause.