The president is about to order companies that do business with the federal government to disclose their political donations.
By KIMBERLEY A. STRASSEL
President Obama has officially kicked off his 2012 re-election campaign, and don’t Republicans know it. The president is expected any day now to sign an executive order that routs 70 years of efforts to get politics out of official federal business.
Under the order, all companies (and their officers) would be required to list their political donations as a condition to bidding for government contracts. Companies can bid and lose out for the sin of donating to Republicans. Or they can protect their livelihoods by halting donations to the GOP altogether—which is the White House’s real aim. Think of it as “not-pay to play.”
Whatever you call it, the order amounts to the White House brazenly directing the power of government against its political opponents—and at a time when the president claims to want cooperation on the budget and other issues. Senate Republicans from Mitch McConnell to Susan Collins are fuming, warning this is one political sucker punch too far, an unabashedly partisan move that will damage Senate work.
Minority Leader McConnell in an interview calls the order the “crassest” political move he’s ever seen. “This is almost gangster politics, to shut down people who oppose them. . . . I assure you that this going to create problems for them in many ways—seen and unseen—if they go forward.”
That might not matter to a White House that’s already monomaniacally focused on 2012. Democrats are obsessed with the money game, in particular rubbing out any GOP opportunities that came with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to restore some corporate free-speech rights. Democrats last year tried to ram through the Disclose Act, designed to muzzle those new corporate rights, while allowing unions to continue spending at will.
When the party failed to get the bill through even an overwhelmingly Democratic Senate, the White House stepped up. The draft order, which came out last month, would require federal bidders to supply a complete list of all political contributions made by the company, its political action committee, and its senior executives—going back two full years. (Richard Nixon would be impressed.) More astounding, the order requires the list to include donations made to third-party political groups—disclosure that is not currently required by law, and that is, as a result, surely unconstitutional.
Ever audacious, the White House is spinning this as “reform,” claiming taxpayers deserve to know how federal dollars being paid to contractors are being spent in campaigns. This might hold (a drop of) water if the executive order also required all the (liberal) entities that get billions in taxpayer dollars via federal grants and funding—unions, environmental groups, Planned Parenthood—to disclose also. It doesn’t.
The whole reform language is “Orwellian,” says Ms. Collins. It’s a measure of the order’s naked political nature that she’s leading the pushback—spearheading a GOP letter to the president and briefing Republican senators at a policy lunch this week. This is the same Susan Collins who has bucked her party in the past on campaign-finance issues, voting for McCain-Feingold.
The administration’s argument that this is about disclosure is “a fraud,” she declares. The very notion “offends me deeply,” she says, since the order undermines decades of work by her and others to ensure federal business is free of corruption of political influence.
The politics of the order have been so ugly that she argues the media has missed the equally profound policy implications. It’s the “equivalent of repealing the Hatch Act,” she argues, the seminal 1939 law designed to weed out federal pay-to-play.
It has taken decades to create a federal contracting system based on “best prices, best value, best quality,” Ms. Collins says, and the effect of the Obama order is to again have “politics play a role in determining who gets contracts.” Companies may choose not to bid, which will reduce competition and raise government costs. And the order puts “thousands of civil servants” who oversee contracting “in an impossible situation.”
The White House hasn’t bothered to respond to Ms. Collins’s letter, though Mr. Obama has had plenty of time for campaigning. In recent weeks he’s held fund-raisers in Chicago, California (six events in two days) and New York, while next week he heads to Texas. Supporters are bragging the campaign may break the $1 billion threshold, money that will go even further if the White House can simultaneously use its executive order to dry up Republican donations.
The GOP has stayed mum on what it will do if Mr. Obama chooses to inject that level of partisanship into Washington’s current debates. His Osama bin Laden victory notwithstanding, Americans remains unhappy with the president’s performance on jobs, the economy and debt. If the president wants to shut down the possibility of bipartisan accomplishment on those fronts, a raw, election-motivated attack on Republicans is one sure way to do it.