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The first act was Citizen’s United. You know, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to potentially unlimited corporate money in political campaigns – anonymous donations in actual practice since the decision opened a loophole in campaign finance disclosure requirements.

The second act consisted of an effort to mitigate the mischief wrought by Citizens United via legislation, the Disclose Act, which would have enforced transparency in political giving. Unfortunately, the Disclose Act went down in flames – which suggests that it isn’t only corporations that don’t want folks knowing who will pay for what come next election.

Now comes the third act. President Obama, still in pursuit of transparency, has issued a draft executive order that would:

… require companies bidding for federal contracts to disclose contributions made by directors and officers to federal candidates and parties. It would also require the disclosure of corporate donations to third-party advocacy groups that support or oppose federal candidates with campaign ads.

 

Here I ask you to remember how our Democratic Senator, Claire McCaskill, was loud and clear in her support of the Disclose Act and about the importance of transparency in campaign finance. Now, however, guess who opposes the White House’s effort to secure just a little bit of that transparency that Senator McCaskill once regarded so highly. Senator McCaskill, that’s who.

McCaskill, the chairwoman of Homeland Security’s subcommittee on government contracting, is worried about how such knowledge might affect the contracting process, a concern she expressed in a letter in which she and Senator Joe Lieberman expressed their opposition to the President’s proposal:

We are concerned that requiring businesses to disclose their political activity when making an offer risks injecting politics into the contracting process,” the lawmakers wrote. “Federal contracting law already precludes the consideration of political activity in evaluating contract offers.

Gee, I’m glad to know that federal contracting law precludes such a consideration of political activity – but how do you know that that preclusion is effective if giving is secret? Apart from the issue of appearances, there’s always the old quid pro quo and you can bet the folks getting money from big government contractors know where it comes from.

Why does McCaskill seem to think transparency good sometimes, but not when it comes to those who award plum contracts? I know, I know – what these geniuses are putatively worried about is the situation where a bidder may have donated lots of money to, say, Republicans, and a majority Democratic committee awards the contract in question to a big Democratic donor instead. Clearly, the assumption might be that there are grounds to suspect that political considerations rather than more appropriate criteria came into play.

There are, however, ways to circumvent such concerns. Wouldn’t it, for instance, be easier to codify procedures that rigorously document the selection criteria used?  After all, when nobody knows the source of campaign support for those politicians on the committees awarding all the big contracts – except the politician himself – who knows what kind of preferences may be represented in the selection process? Does McCaskill prefer that nobody knows enough to even raise a question, a what-you-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-you approach?

The draft executive order is just that – a draft, so it may change in a number of ways before it’s all done – we’ll just have to wait for the fourth act to see how it all comes out. I can tell you now, though, that I’d rather risk an appearance of political bias in awarding government contracts than wholesale corruption of the entire political process – which is what we’re facing if nothing is done.