Why We Need an Executive Order on Political Spending: An Open Letter to President Obama

June 30, 2015
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

Dear President Obama,

You’ve had a great week. With the Affordable Care Act upheld and nationwide marriage equality now the law, you must feel like celebrating. But wait!  Why not carry this momentum and take another step that would increase the equality and well-being of Americans?  I’m talking about an executive order asking government contractors to disclose their political spending.

I know you’ve thought about it before—earlier in your administration, in fact.  But now that we’ve fully seen the impacts that money in politics has on elections in this country, there is no better time than now for you to pick up that pen.

Pres. Obama can and should issue an executive order requiring companies that bid on federal contracts to disclose their political spending.  The move would shed light on (often secret) corporate political activities. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

Pres. Obama can and should issue an executive order requiring companies that bid on federal contracts to disclose their political spending. The move would shed light on (often secret) corporate political activities. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

As a scientist, I like to make decisions based on evidence, and I know that you do too. In your inaugural address, you vowed to “restore science to its rightful place,” committing to protecting science from interference by political or financial interests. You’ve made some great progress towards that goal, but unfortunately the tremendous increase in money in our political system in recent years threatens to tamper with the science you and I have worked so hard to preserve.

The 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United decision has given a new scale to the term “money in politics”—on the order of $3.7 billion in the 2014 election and an even more staggering $6.3 billion in the 2012 election cycle. Disturbingly, we can expect 2016 election to follow a similar trend.

This trend affects our democracy in profound and concerning ways. With no limits on spending and no transparency for donors, money can influence our political system—and undermine the ability of science to inform our democracy—all with no accountability for the forces behind it.

This has serious consequences for evidence-based policy making. What happens when moneyed interests aren’t aligned with the public interest? We can get policy decisions that don’t protect people. We’ve seen money trump evidence before—take climate change, drug safetychemical regulation. In all these cases, public health and welfare has suffered when decisions prioritized profits rather than people, while those responsible for influencing the decision making away from the public interest can stay in the dark, with no accountability for their actions.

An executive order asking the many and diverse companies that bid for contracts with the federal government to disclose their political spending would help address this wave of secret money flowing into our political system and undermining our ability to make policies that protect people.

Such an order should include indirect political spending, such as companies’ donations to politically active nonprofits and trade groups, as we know that these groups can be influential. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, has been a dominant force in obstructing policies that would address global warming; yet, it doesn’t disclose its members and its board of directors fails to stand by the business group in its climate position. As a result, the lobbying behemoth can use its vast resources to aggressively fight policy proposals, without any accountability for the companies supporting it.

Companies—especially those that bid on federal contracts—should be transparent about how they attempt to influence decision makers—both directly and indirectly.  After all, these are the very same companies who stand to benefit the most from those government decisions. And pressure is building for you to take this action.

I hope you can make this executive order and greater transparency in corporate political activities part of your legacy.  If you take this step, I know millions more who will celebrate with you.

Sincerely,

Gretchen Goldman