During his time in office, President Barack Obama has repeatedly criticized the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, and spoken out with particular force on the need to curb the tidal wave of secret money that has washed over our elections as a result. But despite the fact that so many Americans of all ideological stripes are fed up with our political system, in part because of the role money plays, the president has never followed up on his words with real, concrete action.
Even now, there is still time for him to do so, by issuing an executive order requiring large government contractors to disclose their campaign spending. This is almost certainly his last chance to leave any concrete legacy on one of the most important challenges facing our democracy.
Citizens United not only freed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited money on elections, it also paved the way for them to give millions to super PACs and other entities that can spend that money for them. Among the biggest recipients of this largesse have been “dark money” groups that disclose none of their donors, who have spent well over $800 million in federal races since 2010, mostly on the most competitive contests. These groups tend to have vague names like “Americans for Prosperity” and “Majority Forward.” Voters have no way of knowing who is behind their spending, or what these backers want from the government. Ironically this veil of secrecy goes against the court’s own pronouncements extolling transparency as a key safeguard against “abuse of the campaign finance system.”
Dark money is particularly concerning to the extent it is comes from large federal contractors. In fiscal year 2014, the last year for which we have relatively complete data, the federal government spent roughly $447 billion on private sector contracts, about 36 percent of which went to just 25 companies. With so much money at stake, the benefits of currying favor with the powerful are obvious. Indeed, the largest federal contractors already spend tens of millions of dollars on disclosed contributions. There is nothing to prevent these same companies from giving millions more to dark money groups.
The politicians who benefit from such spending will naturally feel gratitude, and when it comes to contractors, there is plenty they can do to return the favor. The ultimate risk is that we will end up with a system where taxpayer dollars go to insiders who know how to play the political money game, rather than those offering the best, most cost-effective product or service. An executive order requiring basic transparency would at least provide a measure of accountability and represent an important first step toward dealing with the larger problem of secret money in American politics.
Anger over money in politics was a potent force throughout the 2016 campaign, helping to fuel both Bernie Sanders’ progressive insurgency and the right-wing populism of President-elect Donald J. Trump. There is a strong case that establishment Democrats’ complacency about the outsized role of rich donors and special interests in our politics helped Trump to eke out his victory in the electoral college over Hillary Clinton, President Obama’s chosen successor.
That is surely what some members of the beltway political class want. But President-elect Trump based his entire campaign on a promise to do things differently, to “drain the swamp” and stamp out corruption in Washington. He won the votes of millions of Americans who feel disdain for an economic and political system that isn’t working for them because it favors the wealthy and connected.
If he is serious about his promises to them (notwithstanding the unprecedented ethical questions already swirling around his future administration), he may not want one of his first acts in office to be rescinding a common sense measure to help voters ensure taxpayer dollars are wisely spent. In the very least, he should have to make that decision, rather than being let off the hook.