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Editorial

Politics in the shadows

Federal contractors should have to disclose contributions to groups engaging in political advertising.

May 05, 2011

Offering specious arguments about free speech and intimidation, Republicans are trying to derail an executive order by the Obama administration that would shed light on the political activities of government contractors. The order would require them to disclose any contributions they make to organizations that engage in political advertising, including the Chamber of Commerce and the shadowy groups known as 501c(4)s. In that way voters would know who was behind advertisements by groups with vague or innocuous names.

A bill that failed in the last Congress would have established strict new rules requiring the disclosure of donors behind political advertisements. Known as the DISCLOSE Act, it also would have required the heads of unions and corporations that advertised in support of candidates to vouch personally on the air for the messages. Congress should take up that legislation again, but in the meantime President Obama ought to do what he can to require disclosure. Imposing requirements on government contractors is only a partial solution, but it is a legitimate one.

Actually, it might be constitutional for the government to ban federal contractors from engaging in any political spending at all. The Supreme Court has upheld restrictions on the 1st Amendment rights of government employees, and the rationale can be extended to contractors, who have an obvious conflict of interest when they spend money on behalf of a candidate. But the order being considered by the Obama administration doesn't go that far; it simply requires that the contractors disclose their political spending.

Even that is too much for Republicans. Twenty-seven Senate Republicans sent a letter to the White House arguing that requiring disclosure of contractors would have a chilling effect "if prospective contractors have to fear that their livelihood could be threatened if the causes they support are disfavored by the administration." Worse still, the Republicans say, it might pressure companies to support the administration's party — a variation on the Washington practice of "pay to play."

But that's wrong. Transparency — and scrutiny from the political opposition — would provide a check on any abuses. Disclosure is the solution, not the problem.

Government contractors can argue that they are being singled out. The easy remedy for that is to require that all contributions to all groups that engage in political activities be made public. Requiring disclosure by contractors is a first step, but it doesn't have to be the last.

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