President Obama is weighing whether to invoke his executive authority to force federal contractors to disclose political contributions they make to independent groups, according to individuals briefed on the matter.
The proposed executive order would require corporations that currently have federal contracts to disclose what they spend on political campaign efforts, including money forwarded through trade associations, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other advocacy groups.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Detroit Wednesday, White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said the president was committed to “changing our politics.” He added that Obama considers the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, which lifted federal restrictions on campaign contributions from corporations and unions, a ruling “that really opened the floodgates to special interest spending in our elections.”
While the White House would prefer for Congress to act on the issue, Schultz added, “For our part, we are going to continue to consider actions we can take on the administration level, to combat this problem.”
“I do not have any specific measures to preview at this point," he added, declining to say whether language adopted by Congress would impede the president from issuing as sweeping an executive order as he would like.
“As [White House press secretary Josh Earnest] is fond of saying, he’s not a lawyer. I’m not a lawyer,” Schultz said. “But I can tell you that any executive action that would be vetted through our system and announced by the president would be on solid legal footing.”
A White House official, who asked not to be identified because no decision had been finalized concerning an executive order, said the proposal would not be submitted as part of the president’s new budget, which will be announced on Feb. 9.
The New York Times reported Wednesday morning that the White House was seriously considering the move.
Congress passed language a couple of years ago that would block the president from issuing an executive order requiring disclosure during the bidding process.
“What the president suggesting he may do is clearly prohibited by law,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Wednesday. “There are no boundaries beyond which he cannot push. The Supreme Court is taking a look at some of this overreach, but apparently their strategy is to overreach everywhere, for as long as they can.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate who has frequently supported past campaign finance reform legislation, blasted the potential move. "It truly is Orwellian that this administration is claiming that this is a way to take politics out of the contracting process," she said. "In fact, what it's doing is politicizing the contracting process.
Collins said it made little difference, in her view, if the order applies only to actual contractors and not to all bidders: "Current contractors are going to be future bidders, almost certainly, and I think it's it is entirely inappropriate."
However, longtime reformer Fred Wertheimer said he is hopeful that Obama will issue an order that would require disclosure from existing contractors.
"This is an opportunity for President Obama to finally take concrete steps to deal with our campaign finance problems" after the Citizens United decision, Wertheimer said.
The move is strongly opposed by business groups, which argue that forcing companies to reveal such contributions would impede on their free speech rights.
“Make no mistake about it, the real goal of the disclosure proponents is to harass, intimidate, and silence those with whom they disagree,” Blair Latoff Holmes, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. “It is, frankly, inconsistent with both the spirit and letter of our First Amendment.”
“When the idea of this executive order was first made public over four years ago, we vigorously opposed it,” she added. “We continue to believe that one’s political activities should play no role in whether or not you get or keep a federal contract, and we encourage the administration to leave this bad idea right where it is.”
While Obama has not made a final decision whether to pursue the action — which campaign finance reform groups have advocated for years — he has put a new focus in recent weeks on the current gusher of unlimited political spending.
“We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections,” the president said in his State of the Union address last week, “and if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution.”
In 2012, Senate Republicans blocked the DISCLOSE Act, which would have require independent groups to reveal their donors’ identities.
At the time, Obama said, “I will continue to do everything I can to repair the deficit of trust between Washington and the American people,” but he has stopped short of acting unilaterally on the issue.
The two leading Democratic presidential hopefuls, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), have made campaign finance reform a major theme in the 2016 bids. Clinton said in September she would issue an executive action requiring federal contractors to disclose their contributions if elected president.
Trevor Potter, who leads the political law group at the firm Caplin & Drysdale, and used to chair the Federal Election Commission, said in an email that advocates had been waiting for Obama to act on the issue for years.
“We have heard this order has been ready for the president's signature for the last several years, and I don't know of anyone on the outside who really knows whether the presidential pen will move across that piece of paper or not, or when,” said Potter, a Republican and founding president of the Campaign Legal Center. “I have no idea why this was not done by the president years ago given [White House] statements about the importance of disclosure.”
Lisa Gilbert of the watchdog group Public Citizen said that the executive order would not only have a significant policy impact, but would rally supporters who have been waiting for Obama to take action on the issue of money in politics.
“People are looking to the president to lead from the front,” she said, adding: “His rhetoric has been clear and important throughout his administration. He continued to use the bully pulpit. The only thing that has been missing has been his person al action.”
Tom Hamburger, Matea Gold and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.