Obama should take cue from investors, require corporate political spending disclosure

wallstThis month shareholders at Fluor Corporation and NiSource Inc. voted to approve resolutions that require the companies to disclose their political spending. Fluor is a global engineering and construction company and NiSource supplies natural gas and electricity to nearly 4 million customers in seven U.S. states. Support for corporate political spending transparency has been growing nationwide as more and more shareholders demand to know whether their companies are using their investments to engage in potentially risky political behavior or investing in issues that are not aligned with their corporate values.

In a great trend, some companies- more than half of the S&P 100– have moved to voluntarily increase transparency around their political spending, however many still prefer to hide their campaign and lobbying spending from public view. With the majority votes at Fluor and NiSource, shareholders are demanding transparency.

The recent majority votes at Flour and NiSource demonstrate the continued momentum for corporate transparency, but they are also significant because both companies are recipients of major government contracts. Fluor Corporation and its subsidiaries have been awarded over $470 million in federal contracts in fiscal year 2016 alone. NiSource was awarded almost one million dollars in government contracts in 2015 and 2016, and has been awarded almost $12 million since 2011.

A diverse coalition including investment firms, democracy groups, labor unions, and environmental groups have been calling on President Obama to issue an executive order that would require all major government contractors to disclose their political spending. As of December 2015, over one million signatures supporting the executive order have been delivered to the White House.

The implications of such an order would be meaningful not just for shareholders in these particular companies but for all Americans. Requiring federal contractors to disclose how they spend money in politics would touch 70% of the Fortune 100 companies. This means that Americans would be able to see if some of the country’s largest companies (and recipients of taxpayer dollars) are wielding undue influence over our elections and policy decisions by Members of Congress intended to influence the contracting process.

In his last State of the Union address President Obama acknowledged the problem that so many Americans have already identified by saying, “we have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.”

President Obama has the opportunity to put some muscle behind that promise by issuing an executive order and have a serious impact on money in politics in this country before leaving office. Almost two-thirds of Americans think that corporations have outsized influence in our elections. We recognize that our current system of democracy does not reflect how diverse our nation really is. In the face of inaction in Congress, Americans are relying on President Obama to take a stand for every non-billionaire who wants to run for office, for every small business that wants big business to play fairly, and for every parent who wants their child to grow up with clean water to drink and safe air to breathe. Without reducing the corrupting influence of money in our politics, these voices of everyday Americans will continue to be drowned out by big dollar corporate spenders, including government contractors that are paid by our tax dollars.

Shareholders have taken a stand this month by exerting their right to transparency as an elixir to the problem of money in politics. Investors aren’t the only ones who deserve to know how their money is being spent. Taxpayers should also know what issues and candidates are supported by contractors paid with federal dollars. The President should listen to the growing chorus of Americans calling on him to help restore the balance to our democracy by issuing the executive order today.

Rachel Curley is the democracy associate in Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.