WASHINGTON -- Every year since 2012, campaign finance reform advocates have cautiously anticipated whether President Barack Obama would use his State of the Union address to announce an executive order requiring the disclosure of some of the “dark money” funding campaigns. Each time, he has declined to do so.
Leading up to the president's last address Tuesday night, reformers are mostly resigned to the fact that the president will decline to announce any such plan. They do believe that he could lay the groundwork for an announcement on the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the door to unlimited corporate, union and, ultimately, individual spending on independent electoral efforts.
“While I don’t think we’ll see groundbreaking policy announcements, I do think there will be foreshadowing for later,” said Lisa Gilbert, the director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.
The president’s advisers, current and former, have weighed in on what could and should be in his final State of the Union.
White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough stated that the speech will push for policies that allow “every American has a chance to influence this democracy, not the select few,” or “millionaires, billionaires.”
Obama’s former top economic adviser, Gene Sperling, tweeted on Jan. 8 that the president should sign an executive order to reduce the amount of dark money funding elections.
“We are confident President Obama is as appalled by the Citizens United decision today as indicated in his first State of the Union, perhaps more so given the grotesque displays of influence buying we’ve seen since,” said Common Cause Communications Director Scott Swenson. “In many ways democracy/political reform makes sense for the White House to lead on as voters start to turn their attention to choosing his successor.”
A potential executive order came to light after the draft text of one was leaked to conservative lawyer and former Federal Election Commission member Hans Van Spokavsky in 2011. The order would have required all federal contractors to disclose all of their political donations, including those to nonprofits engaged in electoral campaigns that are not covered by disclosure laws, when submitting a bid. It was drafted after Congress failed to pass disclosure legislation in its previous session, failing to clear a Republican filibuster by a single vote.
Business interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and conservative interest groups including those connected to the billionaire Koch brothers declared all-out opposition to the proposal. The chamber’s top lobbyist, Bruce Josten, said in 2011, “We will fight it through all available means.”
Republicans in Congress have attempted to deny the White House the ability to issue the order through the appropriations process. Legislative language passed Congress that forbids the use of funds to enact or enforce an order requiring all federal contract bidders to disclose political spending. This language does leave open the possibility for the president to sign an order requiring contractors to disclose once they have secured the contract.
Campaign finance reformers have been running a sustained campaign to get Obama to sign this executive order for years now. Their efforts have included the delivery of over 1 million signatures to the White House in support of the order, getting 26 Democratic senators to send a letter pressing Obama to sign the order, backing from The New York Times editorial page and vocal support from Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
So far, though, the president has only provided heartening words in prior speeches.
In his 2015 State of the Union, Obama said, “A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.”
But there was no policy announcement to go along with the statement.
Some reform backers have taken a harsher line on the president as his administration has failed to produce a policy to limit the amount of undisclosed money coursing through politics.
The reform group RootStrikers launched a campaign to highlight Obama’s poor record on campaign finance reform. The group points out that Obama endorsed his very own super PAC in his 2012 reelection bid, and effectively killed the presidential public financing system by becoming the first candidate to refuse to participate in it during a general election in 2008.
In support of the dark money executive order, RootStrikers and its partners have successfully obtained enough signatures to require a response from the White House through its “We the People” petition system. That response must come by Feb. 16.
“We continue to hear the same rhetoric for his entire presidency -- that he detests the Citizens United decision, that it’s incredibly harmful to the country, and yet he’s done nothing,” RootStrikers Campaign Manager Kurt Walters said. “If he does not issue the executive order and continues to give the same empty rhetoric it will be a slap in the face to the millions of Americans he made promises to.”