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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.

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