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.
The real objection Republicans and the Heritage Foundation have with the order is that it removes the possibility of corporate money influencing government more than it already does. The Citizens’ United ruling was a gift to Republicans who do the bidding of corporations in exchange for campaign contributions and it became obvious after reports that two Supreme Court Justices attended a secret Koch Industries strategy meeting prior to voting to extend free speech rights to corporations just in time for the 2010 midterm campaigns.
The midterm elections saw a record amount of campaign contributions from anonymous sources that were illegal for years until the high court broke with precedent and gave personhood to corporations. The rash of Republican governors’ victories and subsequent corporate favoritism and tax cuts at the expense of poor and working class Americans is evidence that there is a serious need for accountability and transparency in campaign financing.
The response from McConnell and the Heritage Foundation is not unexpected and is most likely the tip of the iceberg as far as criticism and false indignation are concerned. The screed from Hans A. von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation is a preview of the propaganda right-wing outlets like Fox News and their pundits will spew on an hourly basis once the order becomes common knowledge.
Conservatives are not known for their veracity, and based on von Spakovsky’s portrayal of the order, there is no telling how Fox, Limbaugh, Beck and myriad Republican presidential hopefuls will spin the story, or to what end their faux outrage will take. One thing is certain; Republicans will make the order tyrannical and un-Constitutional before the dust settles and that should be a signal that the president’s proposal is appropriate and in keeping with democratic principles of fairness. Of course, any attempt at ensuring fairness in government is contrary to Republican principles of corruption, fear mongering, and doing the bidding of the Heritage Foundation.