Secret political spending faces scrutiny after concern over federal contracts

From the Twin Falls Times-News

Secret corporate spending on political campaigns may face the sharp rays of sunshine.

A draft executive order awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature would require all companies bidding for federal contracts to show the public how much money they spend on political campaigns, and where it goes. The proposal also covers corporate donations to nonprofit fronts that, in turn, pump the money into independent political spending to either help or harm certain candidates.

In Idaho, the change would mean that the public could check a government website to find the political spending of companies bidding for jobs in the Gem State or elsewhere. Federal contracts play a strong role in Idaho’s economy, particularly at installations like Mountain Home Air Force Base and the Idaho National Laboratory. In fiscal year 2010, $2.6 billion was spent on federal contracts in Idaho, according to government data.

The proposed order follows a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations and unions to make direct political donations to candidates. But since such donations would show up on a candidate’s disclosures, many trade and industry groups have kept their donations secret by creating nonprofits that aren’t required to name their fiscal supporters.

Those organizations don’t donate directly to candidates. Instead, the third-party groups put money into efforts like their own political ads, literature and phone calls during election season.

Those groups spent nearly $133 million from secret donors in the 2010 elections, with $119 million — or 90 percent — going toward Republican causes, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Government openness advocates say that showing who donates to political spending groups would be a welcome step toward transparency and away from back-door deals. On the other side are business advocates who contend that the change would bring undue political scrutiny to companies’ bids for federal work.

Corporate and business interests are lobbying fiercely against the proposal, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the biggest political spenders.

“If you have to disclose to the awarding officials what political spending you’ve done, the natural result would be for the awarding officials to consider that during the award process,” Chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff said, adding that contracts should be awarded based on the best value for taxpayers. “… They should not be based on those contractors’ political views and they should not enlist the agencies in a witch hunt for which contractors are naughty and which are nice.”

Public Citizen, a national organization that promotes government accountability, backs the proposed order, saying the Supreme Court decision opened the door further to abuse and corruption.

“The only reason to oppose this is if you’re a massive corporation that wants to buy sweetheart government contracts without the public finding out,” Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist of Public Citizen, said in a statement.

The House Oversight Committee and House Small Business Committee will have a joint hearing today prior to Obama’s decision.

U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho and a member of the oversight committee, told the Times-News that contracts should be awarded competitively based on a company’s performance history and cost-effectiveness — not political activity.

“A company’s history of political activity has absolutely no place in the bidding process,” Labrador said in a statement. “I am not sure of the intent of this executive order, but in my opinion the net result of this action could be to intimidate companies into making donations it otherwise would not make in order to secure contracts or even be ‘eligible’ to win contracts.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, also has concerns.

“While I have not seen any proposed language regarding a potential executive order, I am worried that any attempt by the Obama Administration to link campaign contributions to the award of federal contracts would inject politics into a process where it does not belong,” Simpson said. “There are significant constitutional and ethical considerations at play here which lead me to believe that this is a matter that should be dealt with by Congress rather than through the use of an executive order.”

From the Twin Falls Times-News

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