This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

Common-sense rules for a ‘moneyed political culture that knows no limits’

It is hardly the most onerous proposal. President Obama is reportedly considering an executive order to require federal contractors to disclose political spending that exceeds $5,000. He’s not thinking about banning such spending, mind you: He is just weighing the merits of asking contractors who are being paid by federal tax money to be transparent about their partisan contributions.

You can imagine how popular this idea is among business leaders. R. Bruce Josten, executive vice-president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, made his perspective clear this week, telling The New York Times that “we will fight it through all available means.”At the moment, the American system of political spending is so unregulated that it might make Adam Smith rethink free markets. Let’s be clear: Businesses and individuals who give money to organizations that advocate for different positions are doing so under settled law. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United remains the law of the land. An effort to force disclosure — and thus accountability for one’s actions, usually a conservative virtue except in this case — was stymied in Congress. Now the president is seeking to impose some common-sense rules on a moneyed political culture that knows no limits

Defenders of the post-Citizens United world, of course, see political spending as free speech, which it is. But reasonable people have always accepted reasonable limits on speech — not yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater and all that. The president is pondering a blow for transparency and thus for responsibility for those entities that choose — choose — to be federal contractors. If you are a private businessman working within the private sector, eschewing public money, you’re fine, and can continue to operate in secrecy. That is far from ideal — disclosure seems a rational course — but that is not what the president is currently weighing.

A group of Republican senators led by Susan Collins of Maine wrote the president this week to argue against the executive order. “No White House should be able to review your political party affiliation or the causes you support before deciding if you are worthy of a government contract,” they wrote. “And no Americans should have to worry about whether their political activities or support will affect their ability to get or keep a federal contract or their job.” Fair enough. But neither should any American have to worry that the few with means can profit at the expense of the unconnected many.

Political contributions change the social and the moral calculus of the nation. And they should: it’s how many people make themselves heard. But let’s be honest. Disclosure would give the broader national community the means to know how their business is being conducted. If the business community finds that prospect so maddening, then that may be all the more reason to hope the president finds a way to let some light in.

  • thumb
    Memorial Day every day
    Beyond the backyard BBQ: Honor and aid those who have served.
  • Fast and too furious?
    Can accuracy and the demand for instant information coexist in the media?
  • thumb
      Steinbeck's Salinas Valley
    John Steinbeck's hometown came to worldwide notice through the Grapes of Wrath. Not all city fathers were pleased by the portrait. Explore what has changed and what remains the same in Salinas.


  • jan

    The amount of money that is currently being spent on campaigns is pretty much obscene; especially when the economy is not good. I would like to see reasonable limits on campaign spending and funding.

  • Revellry

    Businesses may believe political donations constitute free speech, but the right to free speech does not mean a right to anonymous speech. Requiring disclosure in particular for those who seek government contracts, should be an acceptable constraint. I think disclosure should be required even if not seeking a government contract, but apparently that is a point of leverage (seeking a government contract) that the President is trying to take advantage of to move this in the right direction which in the end should include full tranparency.

  • niniof9

    Since Citizens United said that Corporations are people and can contribute as people–and since anyone who contributes to a campaign has to report it (if I contribute to a campaign I have to fill out a form) why don’t these corporations have to report all their contributions also?? More transparency would stop the hidden agenda of people like the Koch Bros from using their corporate enterprise from funding Tea Party groups all over the country!!

  • Steve Banicki

    Our political campaign laws go far beyond who is elected President. They tear at the fabric of our free markets. We don’t have free markets or even a free press. The issue is what kind of central control do you want.

  • Mary Jenson

    keep in mind this is just for those with federal contracts. If you want a federal contract you should be prepared to show that you do not have a conflict of interest.

  • Kenneth Viste

    An honest person should be proud of his contributing to causes and people he admires . Anyone who contributes secrertly is devious and can be assumed to be corrupt..

  • Guest 5

    When you have supreme court that can pass a law like the Citizens United case and the convoluted logic that a corporate entity because its an individual, can spend more money on political noney donations than allowed by law to one individual $2500 I believe.
    Answer me this please How can a corporation which is individual in alegal sense have the right to spend more money on its political desires Than poor old me?
    I know why not in America but he best system is a cap on individual donations for each election and an annual cap and the same for corporates maybe a bit more Cash say S10,000 and those contributions restricted to the stae in which the corporate is registered. At present they can thru CASH/ADS Influence elections across the nation. Apply the same rules to political groups max per member donation p.a. and say 5 action groups at most ( if you can afford) and these organisations must divide activities between political and charitable and have strict rules for reporting spend and purpose. Obviously you can give as muxh as you can afford to agroup that has a charitable division no restriction, but no cross funding.
    Keeps the free speech element open and the rules simple and the same for eityer party it s the per capita and annual amounts that are Key.
    Then you have to divide TV time up fairly when a politician appears it has to be both/all sides.
    If a Media channel wants to offer Opinion or support it can do so but clearly as an Opinion program in support on X subject, politician or party, and Must use the Highest standards of journalistic integrity by giving facts that are say the best and worst of republic think tanks and democratic think tanks On say budgets for example… then let the and the likes analyse any improper leanings.
    You want to keep Limbaughs and Becks and thier opposite numbers fine. When they even remotely discusss politics they have to say these are personal opinions and on balance on this issue I support XYZ party or candidate. If thier program is not officaill=y nationally syndicated thier comments stay in state to The Radio or TV local station. Can be quoted elsewhere but with the pre-amble personal opinion etc.
    Guest 5.