Disclosure is not enough, says progressive ‘Outlaw Bribery’ advocate

Cory Booker, Sheldon Whitehouse, Lisa McCormick

Forcing government contractors to disclose their political contributions was called a good first step back in 2011, shortly after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, but an outright ban on bribery is necessary today according to New Jersey progressive champion Lisa McCormick.

McCormick is chiding Senator Cory Booker and other Democratic lawmakers who recently called on President Joe Biden to issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending, corrupt “dark money” expenditures exploded from less than $5 million in 2006, to more than $1 billion in 2020.

“Ever since the Supreme Court’s shameful Citizens United decision, giant global corporations have been secretly funneling huge amounts of cash into political campaigns and other influence operations,” said McCormick. “Behind the money spent by these big government contractors are the American taxpayers who bear the expense twice: first when we pay their campaign and lobbying, then after those bribes result in another bloated contract, often for stuff we don’t want or need.”

“As Marianne Williamson said recently, ‘America will begin to right itself when we serve and protect our children as much as we serve and protect our corporations,’ and only by eliminating these bribes can we redirect the energy of our government,” said McCormick, an outspoken anti-corruption activist. “Simply telling people which corporations are paying off politicians is hardly as effective as prohibiting bribery and corruption.”

“Washington does not function as a ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ because the politicians have allowed elections to be converted to auctions, in which the candidates who spend the most money usually win,” said McCormick. “It is clear that corporations use campaign contributions to gain access to politicians and that allows them to influence the awarding of government contracts.”

A study by St. Louis University political scientist Christopher Witko reveals a direct relationship between what a corporation spends on campaign contributions and the amount it receives back in government contracts. 

A case in point is America’s largest contractor – Lockheed Martin. More than 80 percent of Lockheed’s revenues come from the U.S. government, mostly from the Defense Department.

The President can issue an executive order that mandates government contractors disclose their political spending, but McCormick said Congress must pass a law that clearly and uniformly prohibits bribery because a combination of court decisions and convenience has virtually made such corrupt practices legal.

“If ordinary people cannot hope to win fair and free elections, then it would not matter if we know who is bribing our political leaders,” said McCormick, who said the federal indictment of her 2018 primary election opponent explicitly described how he was bribed by the doctor who was convicted in the biggest Medicare fraud case in history.

Booker is one of 19 senators who joined Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in calling on President Biden to issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending, including dark money expenditures, but McCormick said that until genuine campaign finance reform is enacted, those who pay off politicians should not be awarded any government contract. 

“An effective disclosure system would shine a light on special interest influence but it will not help increase Americans’ trust in government if we lack the means to do anything about it,” said McCormick. “It is not unreasonable to outlaw bribery and since the courts made it difficult to convict crooked politicians, we must expand the definition of bribery and fundamentally remove the corrosive influence of money in politics.”

“It is paramount to shore up protections against dark money quid pro quo corruption and its appearance by requiring federal contractors to disclose whether and how much they have spent to support or oppose candidates who can influence the federal procurement process as lawmakers,” wrote the Senators. “Such a requirement would also increase transparency and accountability in our elections, empowering citizens to discharge their responsibilities with accurate information.” 

“While such an executive order will not solve all the problems with secret political spending in our democracy, it would be a much-welcomed step in the right direction.  Corruption has no place in our democracy, and dark money is corrupting,” said the letter they sent to Biden.

Federal contractors spend substantial sums in elections.  The top ten federal contractors received $213.8 billion in federal revenue in 2020, and their corporate PACs spent $24.8 million in that election cycle. 

And in the years since the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision allowed unlimited dark money to pour into elections, contractors and big corporations have increasingly turned to clandestine electioneering. 

Joining Whitehouse’s letter are Senators Edward Markey (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Bob Casey (D-PA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Tina Smith (D-MN), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Patty Murray (D-WA). 

In July, Congressmen Andy Levin (D-MI) and Jason Crow (D-CO) led a similar letter to the President on behalf of 65 House members. 

Whitehouse has long led the charge to end dark money’s poisonous influence over American democracy.  In September, the Senate voted on Whitehouse’s DISCLOSE Act, which would require organizations spending money in elections – including super PACs and 501(c)(4) dark money groups – to promptly disclose donors who give $10,000 or more during an election cycle. 

In addition to election disclosure requirements, the bill would require groups that spend money on ads supporting or opposing judicial nominees to disclose their donors.  All Senate Republicans in attendance voted against the bill, while all members of the Democratic Caucus in attendance voted for it.

The full text of the Senators’ letter is available here.

The call to Congress resurrects an executive order the Obama administration considered, using the President’s constitutional authority under the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 (FPASA).

The Obama administration has all but abandoned its push to require federal contractors to disclose their political donations, after composing a draft executive order last year that would have forced companies pursuing federal contracts to release their campaign contributions as a condition for submitting bids.

Although the White House composed the draft executive order on April 13, 2011, the administration neglected to issue a final order, eventually dropping the matter entirely. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying group supporting businesses, condemned the proposed order last year, arguing it was a backdoor attempt by the White House to silence its private sector opponents by denying them contracts based on political discrimination.

The sentiment was echoed by congressional Republicans, who warned that the net effect of the rule would be stifled political speech, a nod to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen’s United decision that ruled the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting political expenditures by corporations.

While the proposed order was introduced as part of the commitment to government transparency announced by President Obama when he took office, the rule — which would have required potential contractors for federal projects and their affiliates to disclose contributions to candidates, parties or third-party political groups exceeding $5,000 in the two years prior to submitting the bid — was placed on the back burner.

The fact that Obama neglected to mention the order in his latest State of the Union address, in a year where campaign finance reform has become a major political issue, is a clear sign the administration is holding off, according to Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the government watchdog group Public Citizen.

Congressional Democrats have also backed down from campaign finance reform.

In an attempt to place some limits on the unlimited and often anonymous political spending by corporations, allowed by the Citizens United ruling, Chris Van Hollen, a congressman from Maryland, has reintroduced the Disclose Act, which passed the House of Representatives in June 2010 on a 219–206 vote, but was defeated in the Senate following a successful Republican filibuster.

The same legislation was incorporated into the For the People Act, introduced as H.R. 1, but after the bill passed the House of Representatives on a near party-line vote of 220–210 on March 3, 2021, it was blocked in the Senate, as it lacked the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture after a party-line vote.

“Intended to expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, ban partisan gerrymandering, and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders, the demise of the For the People Act merely highlighted our government’s inability to get things done for the public,” said McCormick.

It has technically been illegal for federal government contractors to contribute to federal campaigns or parties since 1940, pursuant to section 52 USC 30119.

Although the ban was watered down in the 1970s to allow contractors to form political action committees, those companies were still forbidden from using their own money toward political donations.

Now, that prohibition is on questionable legal ground because the Citizens United decision paved the way toward unlimited political spending but the ruling did not address the contractor ban, which the Federal Election Commission insists remains in effect.

“Politicians in both parties in conspiracy with government contractors,” said McCormick. “The system appears to be broken but in truth, it is functioning exactly the way big money donors want it to work. The politicians like Cory Booker and Bob Menendez come back and tell voters they really tried to get things done but simply fell short because that story has worked a hundred times and people accept it at face value.”

“I am less interested in finding out who bribed politicians than I am in seeing them prosecuted, so Congress must outlaw bribery, which has been made virtually legal by a series of poorly rendered court decisions,” said McCormick.

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