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ThePlumLIneGS whorunsgov plumline
Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 04/29/2011

Disclosure is good for democracy

Today, several leading Democrats unveiled a plan for a new third party group that will raise and spend huge sums to help Obama get reelected — some of it from undisclosed donors. This comes just as the Obama administration is pursuing a new policy that would compel companies that take government contracts to disclose their political donations.

After their shellacking in the November midterms, the desire to fight fire with fire is understandable. But just because Democrats are funding their own outside groups with undisclosed money doesn’t mean that the White House and Dems should give up on that new policy — or any other efforts to compel more disclosure across the board.

Obama’s executive order earlier this week compelling disclosure of political activity from firms doing business with the government has outraged Republicans. A typical reaction came from former Bush administration attorney John Yoo. Though he wrote the legal rationale justifying the Bush-era torture program, he has finally found an example of executive overreach to disapprove of:

If a small businesswoman wants to sell paper clips to the Defense Department, Mr. Obama would force her to reveal contributions to groups such as Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association. These donations are obviously irrelevant to whether she made the most reliable bid at the lowest price.

Meanwhile, Republican Senators warned darkly that “political activity would obviously be chilled if prospective contractors have to fear that their livelihood could be threatened if the causes they support are disfavored by the Administration.” But there’s a difference between compelling disclosure from firms that are already doing business with the government and making government contracts contingent on those firms’ political activities. The administration thus far is only pursuing the former. The latter obviously, would be completely unethical.

These firms are getting paid taxpayer dollars in exchange for their services. That means that any political causes they are funding are being paid for with the public’s money. Corporations may have freedom of speech, but they don’t have the right to anonymously spend taxpayer money in pursuit of causes the public is not told about. The public has an interest in knowing how its money is being spent — and it has an interest in knowing who is spending what money on political causes.

This is no less true now that some Democrats are putting together groups to facilitate outside spending on their behalf, some of it undisclosed. In fact, if anything, it’s more true. In the absence of legislation that would compel such disclosure across the board, an executive order that forces private companies to let the public know what they’re doing with taxpayer dollars seems like a small but reasonable step in the public interest. Freedom of speech does not include the right to anonymously fund that speech with our money.

By Adam Serwer  |  11:15 AM ET, 04/29/2011

 
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