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Can Obama Force Companies To Disclose Political Donations?

President Barack Obama, under pressure from liberal interest groups, is reportedly considering an executive order that would require some companies to fully disclose political activities.

“With no chance that Republicans in Congress will pass campaign finance disclosure laws, the groups want Obama to strike a blow for transparency on his own, requiring companies with government contracts to disclose all of their political activity, including contributions to political groups that don’t disclose the names of donors,” Jeanne Cummings claims in an op-ed for Bloomberg View.

The coalition has already held more than 60 rallies across the country, with more planned, and claims to have over 650,000 signatures on a petition supporting the idea. Congressional Republicans, however, pre-empted a similar order that Obama had been considering in 2011, which could cause the president to shy away from renewing the effort. (RELATED: FEC Advisory Based on Citizens United Gives Labor Unions, Corporations No Limit for Independent Expenditures)

According to Cummings, “at least $600 million has flowed from wealthy donors to secretive nonprofit groups” since the Supreme Court made its Citizens United ruling in 2010 allowing unlimited political expenditures by non-profit groups. This so-called dark money is funneled by donors to politically active nonprofits that claim they operate for social welfare, a status that exempts them from Federal Election Commission rules requiring public disclosure of their donors.

Firms that have contracts with the federal government are likely among those donors, given that “the top 25 federal contractors collectively contributed more than $30 million to candidates and political committees through their own political action committees” in the 2014 election cycle. (RELATED: Largest Corporate Donors Favor Dems This Election Cycle)

Although government contractors are already required to disclose the spending of their own PAC’s, Cummings claims it is unknown how much those same corporations may contribute in undisclosed donations to other groups.

Advocates of the disclosure order say it is especially important for voters to have knowledge of the political activities of government contractors because of the potential for corruption—or at least the appearance thereof—when politicians receive donations from the same companies that benefit from government business.

“The most obscene aspect of these practices comes when the donated money is skimmed from a government subsidy or tax exemption,” asserts Janet Hayes, co-director of the New Orleans Anti-Corruption Coalition, in an op-ed for The New Orleans Lens. This system, she says, creates “a closed loop in which taxpayer money flows in and out of politicians’ pockets and back to the financial elites.”

“An executive order from Obama would not end or limit donations,” Hayes points out, but such an order would allow citizens to see which elected officials are getting contributions from contractors seeking government business, and how much money changes hands.

On the other hand, there is the danger that disclosure requirements could threaten “the core constitutional values of free speech and privacy,” according to Weird Republic, a conservative blog. (RELATED: Target Discovers Downside of Political Contributions)

Following the debate over California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, for instance, “personal information about donors to Prop 8 committees was posted online, which resulted in death threats, physical violence, and economic reprisals,” and Weird Republic predicts that the order could result in similar retaliation against individuals or companies that take part in debates over gay marriage or other controversial issues.

The American Legislative Exchange Council offers a similar cautionary example. ALEC, which promotes free-market policies at the state level, came under intense scrutiny in 2011 and 2012, after a state representative in Florida inadvertently included the group’s mission statement in a bill based on model legislation promoted by ALEC, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

ALEC had always relied on corporate donations for its funding, but liberal outrage at what they deemed “corporate-funded voter suppression” was sufficient to drive away some of the group’s main corporate sponsors, who decided to find less-controversial ways of promoting their policy objectives.

As of March 2015, PR Watch claims, “at least 102 corporations and 19 non-profits—for a total of 121 private sector members—have publicly announced that they cut ties with ALEC.”

“Disclosure data is useless to the average voter who doesn’t care a whit what strangers donated to issue campaigns,” Weird Republic concludes, asserting that such information “is only of interest to ideologically-driven political activists who are bent on intimidating citizens who do not embrace their orthodoxy.”

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