Lesson of Aaron Schock: Let the public follow the money

SHARE Lesson of Aaron Schock: Let the public follow the money
SHARE Lesson of Aaron Schock: Let the public follow the money

Transparency in government allows the people to hold public officials accountable when they break the law or enrich themselves at public expense. Just ask soon-to-be ex-Congressman Aaron Schock, whose promising political career was derailed this week by revelations that he used taxpayer and campaign funds for lavish “Downton Abbey” office renovations and to pay for trips he never took.

Writing for POLITICO, reporter Todd Purdum observed that, “It is a testament to the reforms of the past 40 years since Watergate that Schock was snagged by his own paper trail of incomplete or misleading financial-disclosure reports — the sorts of documents once upon a time not required at all.” Purdum’s analysis is right on the money.

OPINION

But where financial disclosure requirements are working as intended for members of Congress, we’re not getting the information we need about the people and interests financing election campaigns and through their contributions currying favor with our representatives. Over the last two election cycles, non-profit groups that do not disclose their individual or corporate donors have spent some $500 million to influence federal elections. The big spenders include trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which take in untold millions from corporations whose profits depend on billions of dollars in federal contracts awarded and overseen under congressional supervision.

President Obama should issue an executive order requiring increased disclosure of the money these companies spend on elections, and by extension, on influencing the awarding of federal contracts.

Earlier this month, more than 50 organizations, including the one I direct, Common Cause, wrote a letter urging the president to “tackle the issue of corruption in government contracting” with an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose their political spending. Since then, more than 150,000 Americans have signed petitions in support of such an order. And on April 2, Americans will rally at over 50 events around the country to show support for our right to know what corporations are spending to sway elections and help secure government contracts.

An analysis by Common Cause,using data from the Center for Responsive Politics, found that PAC spending by the top five corporate recipients of federal contracts – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman – nearly tripled in the last decade, from $6.8 million in 2004 to $17.7 million in 2014. That’s just the money we know about.

A separate analysis by Public Citizen of the 15 largest federal contractors, receiving $129 billion in contracts in 2013 alone, found that only 27 percent fully disclose their political expenditures. If companies are raking in that kind of money from our tax dollars, don’t we at least deserve to know how they’re trying to influence the political process that directs all that business their way?

Surely everyone agrees that government contracts should go to the businesses that provide the highest quality, most cost effective products, not those that succeed by playing the political money game.

We know President Obama agrees too. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, he called for “a better politics . . . where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.”

Respectfully Mr. President, talk is cheap. After six years of unfulfilled promises that your administration would root out the special interests rigging the game in Washington, it’s time for action.

An executive order requiring government contractors to disclose their political spending does not require approval from Congress, many of whom deny the well-documented fact that money corrupts our elections and public policy. Ultimately, Congress still needs to pass legislation to bring all dark money –not just that supplied by federal contractors — into the sunshine. But an executive order is a positive step we can take today for our right to know.

The scandal surrounding Aaron Schock is a reminder of sunshine’s antiseptic power when it comes to misconduct by public officials. Now we need sunshine on the political spending of federal contractors so that the public can determine if public officials are repaying their corporate donors with lucrative government contracts.

March marks the fourth consecutive month that Americans polled by Gallup cited “government” as the most important U.S. problem, even more important than the “economy” and “unemployment.” Clearly, we’re all more than ready for President Obama’s promise of a better politics. Set us down the right path by shining a light on big money influencing elections, Mr. President.

Miles Rapoport is president of Common Cause, a 45-year-old national advocacy organization for greater transparency and accountability in government.

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