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Context of 'May 26, 2011: Congressional Republicans Move to Thwart Executive Order on Campaign Finance under Consideration by White House'

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The press learns that the Obama administration is considering having President Obama (see January 27-29, 2010) issue an executive order that would force federal contractors to disclose donations over $5,000 to political organizations. Such firms seeking government contracts would be required to disclose contributions to groups that air political ads either attacking or supporting candidates. Both Republicans and Democrats say that if issued, the order would have an immediate effect. Groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce (USCOC), a large Republican donor that has made large undisclosed donations to Republican-supporting candidates and organizations (see January 21-22, 2010 and October 2010), attacks the White House over the considered executive order, saying it proves Obama is using his executive power to punish political adversaries and reward supporters. USCOC spokesperson Blair Latoff calls the proposed order “an affront to the separation of powers [and] to free speech” (see January 21, 2010) that would create a litmus test for companies wanting to work with the federal government. The order, Latoff adds, could mean “prospective contractors that fund political causes unpopular with the government or the current administration may find that they don’t get a contract award due to political discrimination.” Republican senators will raise the same concerns in a letter sent to the White House the next day. Lawyer Jan Baran, who has worked for both the USCOC and Republican interests, acknowledges that the order could curtail fundraising attempts for the 2012 elections. White House officials and Congressional Democrats say the order would prevent the 2012 elections from being taken over by wealthy anonymous donors on both sides of the political aisle. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a nonprofit group that favors stricter campaign finance rules, says, “The fact that Congressional Republicans may oppose disclosure does not mean that efforts to obtain it are, by definition, partisan.” [United Press International, 4/20/2011; Los Angeles Times, 4/21/2011; New York Times, 4/27/2011] A week later, Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist for the USCOC, will assail Obama and the White House over the proposed executive order, telling a reporter that the organization “is not going to tolerate” what it considers a “backdoor attempt” by the White House to silence private-sector opponents by disclosing their political spending. Josten will even indirectly compare Obama to Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi; citing the Obama administration’s efforts to hasten the deposing of al-Qadhafi, Josten will say of the order: “We will fight it through all available means. To quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table.” White House spokesman Jay Carney will say in response to Josten’s attack, “What the president is committed to is transparency, and he certainly thinks that the American taxpayer should know where his or her money is going.” Josten is joined by the Business Roundtable, a powerful business association made up of a number of chief executives, which will call the proposed order “yet another example of regulatory over-reach,” and will claim the order would increase paperwork and drive up costs for businesses. [Think Progress, 4/27/2011] Lee Fang, a reporter for the liberal news Web site Think Progress, will write that the executive order could have a powerful impact on the USCOC. “[T]he White House’s disclosure rule threatens the entire existence of the Chamber,” Fang will write. “This is because the Chamber only exists to hide the identity of corporations seeking to fight nasty political battles without having their name or brand exposed. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the Chamber’s ‘most striking innovation has been to offer individual companies and industries the chance to use the chamber as a means of anonymously pursuing their own political ends.’ The Chamber’s members include defense contractors, bailed out banks, and other donors likely to be affected by the government contractor campaign disclosure rule.” Fang will also cite a recent plan by the USCOC to sabotage organizations that support Obama and Democratic candidates by using legally questionable tactics such as false entrapment strategies and even computer hacking (see February 10, 2011). The funding for the scheme was never made public. He also cites recent monies secured by the USCOC from foreign entities that, because of the Citizen United decision, could be flowing into US political activities without disclosure (see October 2010). [Think Progress, 4/27/2011] Republicans in Congress will move to pass legislation that would thwart the order, if it is ever issued (see May 26, 2011 and July 15, 2011).

Entity Tags: Barack Obama, Fred Wertheimer, Blair Latoff, Business Roundtable, Jan Witold Baran, US Chamber of Commerce, Lee Fang, Wall Street Journal, Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, Obama administration, Bruce Josten

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In response to reported discussions by the Obama administration on the possible issuance of an executive order forcing government contractors to disclose their political contributions (see April 20, 2011), Republicans in the House and Senate introduce legislation that would block such an order. Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) already successfully added a rider to a defense authorization bill that would block the order. Cole says he hopes that the White House will rethink the proposed executive order in light of the opposition from Congressional Republicans. “I am hoping they’re having second thoughts,” he tells a reporter. “This is the executive branch trying to legislate and use a very powerful weapon to do it. And not just legislate, but it is the executive branch trying to intimidate, in my opinion.” In the House, Representatives Cole, Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Sam Graves (R-MO) are sponsoring legislation against the order, while in the Senate, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are introducing similar legislation. The bills prohibit federal agencies from collecting political information from government contractors as a condition for receiving a government contract. Cole says though his amendment is in the defense bill, he wants to ensure that government contractors are able to keep their political expenditures out of the public eye. “This is one of those things you attack from as many angles and avenues as you possibly can, because it is so important,” he says. “This will get less scrutiny in that process, and it’s a lot easier for Democrats in the Senate to avoid or to kill. A bill is a big statement.” Senate Democrats are likely to vote down the bills. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, an advocacy group that stands for stricter campaign finance laws, says the Republican bills are “continuation[s] of abandonment of campaign finance disclosure by House Republicans, which began last year.” Wertheimer is referring to the DISCLOSE Act, legislation that would have forced outside political groups to disclose their donors, but was blocked by Republicans from coming to a vote (see July 26-27, 2010). Conservative donor organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce (see January 21-22, 2010, July 26, 2010, August 2, 2010, October 2010, November 1, 2010, and February 10, 2011) support the Republican legislation. The Republican-led House Administration Committee has scheduled a hearing on the draft order. [The Hill, 5/26/2011]

Entity Tags: Obama administration, Darrell E. Issa, DISCLOSE Act of 2010, Fred Wertheimer, Mitch McConnell, US Senate, US Chamber of Commerce, Robert Jones (“Rob”) Portman, Sam Graves, US House of Representatives, Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Thomas Jeffery Cole

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) accuses President Obama and Congressional Democrats of subverting the constitutional guarantees of free speech by trying to restrict political campaign contributions, and says Democrats are using “mob” tactics against their critics. McConnell, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, says that the White House has shown “an alarming willingness itself to use the powers of government to silence” political speech of groups with which it disagrees. “It is critically important for all conservatives—and indeed all Americans—to stand up and unite in defense of the freedom to organize around the causes we believe in, and against any effort that would constrain our ability to do so,” he says. McConnell is referring to Democrats’ push for the DISCLOSE Act, a campaign finance bill that would force disclosure of the identities of campaign donors that was defeated by a Republican filibuster in 2010 (see July 26-27, 2010) and is being brought up again. The DISCLOSE Act would affect both corporations and unions. Corporate spending in elections tends to favor Republicans, while union spending tends to favor Democrats. McConnell says the act would require “government-compelled disclosure of contributions to all grass-roots groups, which is far more dangerous than its proponents are willing to admit. This is nothing less than an effort by the government itself to expose its critics to harassment and intimidation, either by government authorities or through third-party allies.… The courts have said that Congress doesn’t have the authority to muzzle political speech. So the president himself will seek to go around it by attempting to change the First Amendment.” McConnell cites the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as one government agency “persecuting” Republican-allied groups, saying, “Earlier this year, dozens of tea party-affiliated groups across the country learned what it was like to draw the attention of the speech police when they received a lengthy questionnaire from the IRS demanding attendance lists, meeting transcripts, and donor information.” The IRS has denied targeting groups based on their political views. IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman says the information requirements stemmed from the tea party groups’ applications for nonprofit status, which triggered automatic IRS review procedures. “There’s many safeguards built in so this has nothing to do with election cycles and politics,” Shulman said before a House Appropriations subcommittee. “This notion that we’re targeting anyone is off.” McConnell says of Obama, “Not only did his campaign publish a list of eight private citizens it regards as enemies—an actual old-school enemies list—it recently doubled down on the effort when some began to call these thuggish tactics into question.” McConnell is referring to an Obama campaign “truth team” document that publicized information about eight wealthy Republican donors. “The tactics I’m describing extend well beyond the campaign headquarters in Chicago. To an extent not seen since the Nixon administration, they extend deep into the administration itself.” McConnell cites the example of Idaho businessman Frank VanderSloot, the national finance co-chair of the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, who was “smeared” as being “a bitter opponent” of gay rights by the Obama campaign. [Bloomberg, 6/15/2012; New York Times, 6/15/2012] VanderSloot is an outspoken opponent of gay rights, though he has hotly denied advocating such positions and often threatens lawsuits against those reporting his positions (see February 17-21, 2012). [Salon, 2/17/2012; KIFI Local News 8, 3/1/2012] The New York Times calls McConnell’s remarks “incendiary.” Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance reform advocacy group, says McConnell “doesn’t have a constitutional or policy leg to stand on.” Democrats note that McConnell has failed to criticize organized efforts by the Romney campaign to heckle and disrupt campaign press conferences, nor has he criticized tea party efforts to disrupt and shout down Democrats during town hall meetings around the country. Wertheimer says McConnell is using his fiery rhetoric to, in the Times’s phrasing, “run interference for the secret donors pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the US Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads.” Obama campaign spokesperson Ben LaBolt says, “Senator McConnell has been running a cover-up operation for the special interest donors attempting to buy the election for the GOP in order to promote their agendas over the national interest.” [Bloomberg, 6/15/2012; New York Times, 6/15/2012]

Entity Tags: Barack Obama, Ben LaBolt, Douglas H. Shulman, Internal Revenue Service, Frank VanderSloot, US Congress, Fred Wertheimer, Mitch McConnell, New York Times

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, 2012 Elections

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