The Administration

Obama’s legacy on campaign finance can be more than just rhetoric


“Legacy” is a term bandied about frequently in Washington, but never more often than as we approach the final year of the Obama administration. No president ever accomplishes everything he wants to, but the question of “did he try?” gains increasing potency as the end nears.

{mosads}The president has seemed freer and more comfortable using both the bully pulpit and the executive action pen since the 2014 midterm elections, and so on issues where he has spoken but not yet acted, the time has come to make progress. Specifically, the time has come to deal with the issue of money in politics.

Throughout his campaign, President Obama said he would work to change Washington, and in particular, focus on the broken campaign finance system. Then, throughout his presidency, he repeated this mantra. It was a refrain that became increasingly important as his administration watched the U.S. Supreme Court hand down the disastrous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) and McCutcheon v. FEC decisions, which upended longstanding campaign finance laws and gave corporations and the super-wealthy even more ability to influence elections.

As the situation has worsened, his rhetoric on the topic has never faltered. For example, in this year’s State of the Union address, he said, “a better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.” Following that, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he mentioned the “non-stop focus on billionaire donors.” And later in the year, on the fifth anniversary of the overreaching Citizens United decision, he again spoke out, saying: “With each new campaign season, this dark money floods our airwaves with more and more political ads that pull our politics into the gutter. It’s time to reverse this trend.”

The rhetoric is clear and unwavering. But when we turn to ponder the question of legacy, what can we point to that the administration has done to curb money in politics? The answer is: nothing yet. The “yet” is the pivotal part of that sentence, as the president has within his grasp the ability to do something meaningful on this issue. And he can do it without Congress.

Obama’s next executive order should require government contractors to disclose their political donations.

This is not a small reform. This landmark policy would enhance transparency in the political process and deal with the appearance of corruption in the contractor system.

When the president issues this executive order, it immediately would reach 70 percent of Fortune 100 companies. Public Citizen reviewed the government contracts held by the 100 largest companies in the United States, as ranked by Fortune magazine for 2014, and found that 70 of the Fortune 100 companies had federal contracts totaling $100,000 or more this year.

This covers companies in a variety of industries, from defense to technology, energy to finance, entertainment to chemicals. Under our current system, Americans have no idea if these major federal contractors are spending money in our political process. Secret contractor spending implies a pay-to-play culture in which the public cannot discern whether awards are going to those best able to play the political money game, or to those offering the most efficient and high-quality product or service. This reform will offer the taxpaying public a window into this spending.

In addition, this reform is a straightforward solution to a key piece of the money-in-politics problem the president has spoken out on. With an election season featuring upward of 20 candidates spending huge sums of cash as they vie for the White House, it’s time to ensure that the American public has the transparency we deserve on that spending.

The impact of an executive order would be significant and a legacy beyond rhetoric must be established. We look forward to the president’s action.

Gilbert is director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and manager of the Bright Lines Project.

Tags Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

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