April 21, 2011- A little over a year ago the Supreme Court of the United States made a controversial ruling that says corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited. The case known as Citizens United v Federal Election Commission allows corporations to use their general funds to buy campaign ads that was prohibited under federal law, and opened the door for unlimited contributions by corporations as well as unions. The high court cited the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of the right of free speech, and it was the first time a corporate entity was treated like a person. Detractors of the ruling cried foul and correctly pointed out that, “The Supreme Court has handed lobbyists a new weapon. A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: if you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election.” The ruling also opened the door for foreign governments to affect the outcome of United States elections.
There was an attempt to assuage the damage from Citizens United in the form of the Disclose Act that passed in the Democratic controlled House last year but failed in the Senate because Democrats couldn’t muster the super majority needed to overcome Republican’s filibuster threat. The failed legislation provided tough new disclosure rules for groups that invest in the election process. President Obama summed up the necessity of the Disclose Act calling it “a critical piece of legislation to control the flood of special interest money into our elections,” and, “that it mandates unprecedented transparency in campaign spending, and it ensures that corporations who spend money on American elections are accountable first and foremost to the American people.” Since Republicans are enamored with the notion of unlimited special interest money without transparency or accountability, it was not surprising they threatened to filibuster the measure. The 2010 midterm elections confirmed Americans’ fears with money from special interest groups and corporations flooding the airwaves with fallacious assertions and inaccurate characterizations of everything from the health law to socialist tendencies of Democratic candidates. It appeared that since the Disclose Act failed, elections would be bought by the highest bidder for years to come, but a report today gives some hope that democracy is not dead in America; yet.
On Wednesday it was reported that President Obama was drafting an executive order that would require companies pursuing federal contracts to disclose political contributions that have been secret under the Citizen’s United ruling. A senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Hans A. von Spakovsky, lambasted the proposed executive order saying that, “The draft order tries to interfere with the First Amendment rights of contractors.” Mr. von Spakovsky dutifully made all the right-wing, neo-con arguments including bringing Planned Parenthood and unions into the discussion. The draft order did not exempt any entity from disclosure rules and presents a reasonable requirement on contractors seeking government contracts. Several states have similar “pay to play” laws to prevent businesses from using unlimited donations to buy lucrative state contracts from slimy legislators. Thus far the only legislator who has railed against the proposed order was Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). McConnell called the proposal an “outrageous and anti-Democratic abuse of executive branch authority,” and went on to say, “Just last year, the Senate rejected a cynical effort to muzzle critics of this administration and its allies in Congress.”
McConnell is working under the assumption that the draft order is an attempt to restrict free speech, but there is nothing in the order remotely resembling free speech violations. The exact wording of the president’s executive order says, “The Federal Government prohibits federal contractors from making certain contributions during the course of negotiation and performance of a contract.” There is no free speech issue and the order applies to union contractors as well as non-union contractors. There is no special dispensation of muzzles or prohibitions on political support; only certain contributions during negotiations and performance. Republicans must hate the idea of corporations like Halliburton or Koch Industries losing the ability to contribute unlimited money to legislators for special treatment in securing government contracts, especially no-bid contracts like the ones Dick Cheney’s company’s received in Iraq and Afghanistan. In lieu of veracity, McConnell accuses President Obama of muzzling critics and suppressing free speech when in fact, the order will bring increased transparency and accountability to the process of awarding contracts. Republicans made it their goal to increase transparency and accountability in government in the lead up to the midterm elections, so McConnell should be thrilled that President Obama is helping them achieve their goal.