In the years since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, political spending has skyrocketed, much of it in secret. The ruling has kept the media and public from knowing where this "dark money" comes from and what conflicts of interest exist. However, if President Obama decides to issue an executive order requiring contractors to disclose their political donations, as he is reportedly considering doing, journalists will soon be able to expose the hidden relationships between contractors and elected officials.
Citizens United opened the financial floodgates to dark money groups - organizations that raise unlimited money from donors to pay for political advertising and campaign organizing but are not obligated to disclose where the money came from. The decision has allowed corporations and wealthy individuals to have enormous influence over elections because it allows them to get around the legal direct donation limits to candidates and parties, creating what many view as a corrupting influence.
As a recent New York Times editorial noted, President Obama is considering issuing an executive order that would force federal contractors to disclose donations to dark money groups. The editorial, which advocated for an order "requiring federal contractors to disclose their donations to political candidates," also noted that House Republicans are currently crafting legislation to further decrease transparency in political spending. Because of entrenched Republican opposition to campaign finance reform, the proposed executive order requiring disclosure on the part of federal contractors may be the only forthcoming measure to address the crisis of money in politics.
[Center for Responsive Politics, accessed 7/14/15]
Some of the larger implications of the Citizens United decision and the ability of federal contractors to skirt federal law have been the subject of investigative reporting by national media, who have looked into the origins of dark money groups. But federal contractors' political spending has received little coverage, mostly because so little reliable information is available, given the secretive nature of the donation process. That is slowly changing, thanks to a renewed push by media outlets and advocacy groups for executive action to force contractors to disclose donations. Their efforts could soon produce results and give media the power to report on how contractors try to gain influence by supporting candidates through dark money groups.
Citizens United gave federal contractors a huge incentive to contribute to these third-party groups as a way to curry favor with politicians who award lucrative government contracts. Washington hands out hundreds of billions of dollars annually in federal contracts and grants, and a vast majority go to large corporations. According to the Brennan Center, "Since 2000, the top 10 federal contractors have made $1.5 trillion from the government." In some states, these federal contractors are an outsized influence on the local economy.
Though the law says 23 percent of federal contracts must go to small businesses, large defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have found ways to qualify as small businesses in certain circumstances. Nine of the top 10 contract winners so far this year have been defense contractors whose political action committees (PACs) were among the largest contributors to federal candidates in the first quarter of 2015:
Requiring contractors to disclose donations would not only affect companies that survive off of federal contracts, like many defense firms, it would also shed light on companies for whom contracts are only part of a larger business model, such as the billionaire Koch brothers-controlled Koch Industries, which has a history of winning federal contracts.
The potential conflict of interest inherent in allowing contractors to donate to politicians who decide which companies get government contracts was acknowledged as far back as 1940. As The Brennan Center for Justice's Ciara Torres-Spelliscy reported, the 1940 Hatch Act made it illegal for contractors to donate "directly or indirectly to make any contribution of money or other things of value, or to promise expressly or impliedly to make any such contribution to any political party, committee, or candidate for public office or to any person for any political purpose or use." However, courts have decided that a contractor may set up its own super PAC as a separate entity to get around the Hatch Act. As the Brennen Center explained in a report on one of the legal challenges to the law:
In 2013, Public Citizen launched a complaint against Chevron for giving $2.5 million to a super PAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF). This expenditure was the largest one from a for-profit publicly traded company in the 2012 election cycle.
This should have be a slam dunk of a case since Chevron is a government contractor covered by the Hatch Act. But the FEC did not see it that way. As Mother Jones reported, "The FEC bought the company's argument, which is that Chevron Corporation (the organization that donated to CLF) and Chevron U.S.A. (the organization with government contracts) are entirely different entities." It did not matter that Chevron U.S.A. is 100 percent owned by Chevron Corp. Now it is open season for government contractors to spend in federal elections since all they have to do is spend through a different subsidiary. The Hatch Act is now barely worth the paper it's written on if this is how the FEC is going to "enforce" it.
And while super PACs are transparent, listing publicly where they got their funds, the donors to super PACs can be dark money conduits like 501(c)(4)s or 501(c)(6)s. Consequently, federal contractors could be hiding among the donors of $600 million in dark money that has been spent in the past four years.
While an executive order would not eliminate contractors' ability to donate to dark money groups, as the Brennen Center points out, it would give journalists and citizens a clearer view into which organizations are supporting which candidates, and could go a long way toward deterring corrupt pay-to-play practices:
Such disclosure [of federal contractor's donations] would not bring all dark money to light, but it would expose a type of dark money that should be especially troubling: campaign contributions that could have been given to influence a contract awarded by the government.
From the April 8 edition of NBC's Today:
Loading the player reg...
From the January 29 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:
Loading the player reg...
Fox News will air an attack on President Obama in a program called Surrendering America, which is premised on myths and falsehoods about the Internet, the defense budget, the changed mission for NASA, and U.S. fossil fuel production and exports.
Fox News ran with misleading figures and false comparisons after Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel outlined a five-year Pentagon budget to stoke fears that the budget will harm the military.
From the October 9 edition of Fox News' The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson:
Loading the player reg...
Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano falsely claimed that failure to raise the debt ceiling would only affect discretionary spending -- something he said "we don't really need as a country." This ignores the importance of discretionary programs and the far-reaching impact that failure to increase the debt ceiling would have.
Fox News covered up Republican support for defense cuts, letting Republican Congressman Mike Turner (OH) blame President Obama for the cuts, despite the fact that Turner himself voted for them.
On September 3, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade interviewed Rep. Turner, who linked across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, to possible military intervention in Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians. During the interview, Turner complained that "the president has left sequestration in place." Turner later commented that Obama "has allowed sequestration to be impacting our men and women who are every day getting up for our national security."
But Turner, along with more than 200 other Republicans, voted for the 2011 Budget Control Act, which House Republican leadership hailed as a victory. Congress passed the law to incentivize further deficit reduction measures, and when Republicans refused to compromise in considering additional tax revenue and more targeted spending cuts to offset sequestration, the cuts were triggered.
Contrary to Congressman Turner's repeated assertions that the president decided to let the cuts remain, it is Republicans' refusal to pursue alternatives to the cuts that keep them in place.
Fox News ignored military testimony in order to claim that the proposed overhaul of Guantanamo Bay facilities is intended to improve conditions for alleged terrorists, when in fact U.S. troops would be the primary beneficiaries.
Earlier this week, General John Kelly, head of U.S. Southern Command, spoke before the House Armed Services Committee on the immediate need for upgrades to U.S. detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Kelly testified that the proposed overhaul to the base would cost between $150-170 million and would, among other things, build a new dining facility, hospital, and barracks for U.S. troops stationed there. Gen. Kelly urged Congress to approve the expenditures, stating, "We need to take care of our troops."
Notably, as NPR reported, "Kelly said none of the projects are aimed at improving the 'lifestyle' of the detainees. But the improvements will increase security and improve the ease of movement for the detainees, which will benefit the guards by making their jobs less complicated."
Fox & Friends Saturday omitted any mention of how the proposed renovations would improve facilities for U.S. troops. Instead, guest-host Jesse Watters, a producer for The O'Reilly Factor, suggested that they were intended to better the lives of suspected terrorist detainees: "These are terrorists. They were living in caves in Afghanistan, in mud huts, basically. Now we're saying Guantanamo bay, a federal facility in the Caribbean is not good enough for these guys?"
Fox News hosts have been dismissing the effects of the across-the-board government spending cuts known as sequestration, claiming that "nothing is happening" following the cuts taking effect. But the cuts are already having negative economic consequences that will continue unless the cuts are replaced.
Fox News opened a discussion on potential defense budget cuts with a graph which tracked changes in the United States' defense spending, pushing the distortion that the U.S. is lagging behind China and Russia. But Fox neglected to acknowledge the actual amount these countries expend on defense; in reality, U.S. defense spending is greater than the next 12 top-spending countries combined.
On the February 12 edition of America's Newsroom, host Bill Hemmer displayed a graph comparing the growth in the defense budgets of China, Russia, and the United States from 2007 - 2011. The chart, which assumed that sequester cuts to the U.S.'s defense budget will take effect, projected the change in these countries' defense budgets through 2015.
Hemmer explained that, "We just wanted to give viewers at home an idea about what countries are doing over the past four years and the coming four years from here," and that for the current year on defense spending, "China goes up, Russia goes up, and the U.S. remains flat when compared to these other two countries." In the next four years, Hemmer claimed, "on the percentage they will contribute on their defense budget, China is about 300 percent increase, Russia's not too far behind, [and] the United States is not only flat, but it's trailing now as we move toward the year 2015." The graph segued into a discussion with Fox military analyst Major General Robert Scales on how cuts to the U.S. defense budget will harm our military capacity.
Fox's chart, focused exclusively on growth in defense spending across a specific period of time compared to 2004 budgets, suggests China and Russia are far out-scaling the U.S. on defense spending. But date constraints and percentage change in budgets are meaningless outside the context of actual expenditure. Hemmer conveniently disregarded the actual dollar amount the U.S. spends on defense compared to China and Russia.
The U.S. spends more on defense than the next 12 top-spending countries combined. PolitiFact examined data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), both "considered to be leading authorities on worldwide military spending numbers," and determined that, "In 2011 -- the most recent year available -- the United States led the world in military spending at $711 billion ... The next top 12 spending nations accounted for a combined total of $670.9 billion." IISS data discovered that the U.S spends $252.6 billion more on defense than the next top nine nations.
Fox News' Carl Cameron falsely claimed that Democrats are pushing for revenue increases without spending cuts in a report on the debt ceiling negotiations. In fact, President Obama and Democrats have offered billions in cuts to social insurance programs.
In a segment on ongoing negotiations to raise the debt ceiling and avoid automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, Cameron described the proposals by claiming, "Republicans want spending cuts and no more tax hikes, and Democrats want pretty much the opposite." From the January 31 edition of Special Report with Bret Baier:
In fact, Obama offered spending cuts throughout the fiscal cliff negotiations and has already cut spending. Obama offered over $400 billion in spending cuts to social insurance programs in addition to the $1.5 trillion in spending cuts included in the 2011 Budget Control Act. They also found that the spending in the act will decrease discretionary spending to "its lowest level" as a share of GDP "going back to 1962."
From the December 9 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:
Loading the player reg...
From the November 30 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
Loading the player reg...
In response to Mitt Romney's debate claim that the Navy's fleet "is smaller now than any time since 1917," President Obama noted that military also has fewer bayonets and horses because it has modernized. Rather than discuss President Obama's accurate point about military strength, members of the media are trying to figure out how many bayonets the military actually uses.