Obama's One Last Chance to Tackle Dark Money Spending

Obama's One Last Chance to Tackle Dark Money Spending

Progressives who have been pressuring President Barack Obama to sign an executive order that would require federal contractors to more fully disclose their political spending got fresh ammunition this week with the release of a scathing report faulting the president’s campaign finance “legacy of inaction.”

President Obama has talked a big game on campaign-finance reform, says the report released by Rootstrikers, a grassroots anti-corruption group, but he has failed to follow through.

Obama promised to push public campaign financing through Congress, as well as participate in and fix the ailing presidential election funding system. He’s repeatedly bemoaned the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling and the subsequent flood of “dark” money into the political process. And, in the face of a recalcitrant Congress, the report says that he’s repeatedly shied away from using his executive power to pass reform.

Now Obama has one last chance to match rhetoric with action. Activists have pressed on multiple fronts for the Obama administration to pull back the curtain on the billions of dollars in undisclosed “dark” money spent on elections. They’ve called for stepped up enforcement and regulations at the Federal Election Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service.

Most recently, progressives have launched a full-court press to get Obama to sign an executive order that would require federal contactors, at least, to fully disclose their political spending, including the money they donate to politically active trade associations and “social welfare” organizations. They argue that as levels of political money soar higher and higher, such an order would at least shine a light on the spending of at least 70 percent of Fortune 100 companies.

“President Obama said in his State of the Union that a better politics means spending ‘less time drowning in dark money ... that pull[s] us into the gutter,’”  Common Cause President Miles Rapoport said in a statement back in March. “The public interest demands we curb the culture of pay-to-play that infects Washington—but first we have to know who is beholden to whom. That’s why it’s important that the president use his authority to help build a ‘better politics’ and sign this executive order.”

For advocates behind that campaign, the Rootstrikers report comes just in time.

“President Obama has no one to blame but himself for his failing legacy on money in politics,” Kurt Walters, Rootstrikers campaign manager, said in a statement. “It's cynical even by Washington standards—Obama has said for six years that he's outraged at Citizens United but hasn't bothered to do anything to combat the decision's effects. We need action, not empty rhetoric.”

The report calls on the president to take action by his final State of the Union address in January, which some have identified as the latest point that executive action could realistically expose dark money spending in the 2016 elections.

Reform advocates are paying close attention to negotiations over the federal spending bill, which among other campaign-finance riders that would curb the president’s ability to increase disclosure through executive action. How the White House treats these rider threats will likely signal whether or not the administration plans to act on any part of the disclosure agenda.

“It’s fanciful to think the president is sitting uninvolved and then a bill just arrives on his desk,” said Walters in an interview. “If it gets to his desk with one or more [campaign-finance riders] on it, it will be because the administration allowed it to be such a low priority that they were willing for it to come on his desk.”

In December of 2014, Obama failed to veto the so-called Cromnibus spending bill, which included a rules change that dramatically increased spending limits to the political parties for special accounts that pay for conventions, recounts, and buildings.

Rootstrikers has circulated a petition demanding executive action on disclosure that has already gained 100,000 signatures. That’s the threshold that, according to a White House policy enacted in 2011, requires an official response from the administration.

Progressive organizers, which include such Obama allies as Credo and Demand Progress, say they haven’t given up. They point to past successes with similar public pressure campaigns on such issues as Internet neutrality and the Keystone XL pipeline, which they say helped force the White House’s hand.

“I think you’ve seen it in a lot of areas, where there’s a lot of hard-edged pressure and a month or two later he’ll take action,” Walters says.