Commentary: Why Do Small Businesses Support E.O. on Contractor Political Spending? Because "Deniability" is Not a Small Business Value

For small businesses, increasing transparency in lobbying and campaign spending is an important way to create a more level playing field where success in business results from hard work, creativity, and good customer service – not back-door influence and pay-to-play politics.
That’s why it’s encouraging to hear news of a potential executive order from the Obama Administration that would require government contractors to disclose their political spending if they surpass a $5,000 threshold. It’s a small step, to be sure, compared to the big problems of covert political spending and a broken campaign finance system. But it’s a step in the right direction (see this May 4 post from OMB Watch for more background on the potential order).
Not everyone in the business community seems to feel this way, though. In an interview for an April 26 New York Times story, R. Bruce Josten, top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber “is not going to tolerate” the proposed transparency order.
Transparency is a Main Street value. Small business owners take pride in being straight-shooting, “what you see is what you get” business people. So why is the U.S. Chamber out guns blazing against this proposal?
You don’t have to dig far to find out. It turns out over 50 of the companies represented on the U.S. Chamber’s board of directors are government contractors, and to the tune of a whopping $44 billion in 2010, according to an analysis compiled by U.S. Chamber Watch.
So, that means almost half of the companies represented on the U.S. Chamber's board – including the likes of Lockheed Martin, Pfizer, Verizon, WellPoint, JPMorgan Chase, and even the U.S. Chamber itself – would have to disclose both their direct and indirect political spending. The indirect part is key, because it means contributions given by companies to the U.S. Chamber for political purposes – like the health insurance industry’s $86.2 million bankrolling of the Chamber’s anti-health reform activities in 2009 – would be part of required disclosures.
To understand why this is just so “intolerable” an idea to the Chamber, it helps to understand the organization’s business model. James Verini wrote about this in the Washington Monthly’s July/August 2010 issue, quoting an interview with U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue:
“I asked Donohue what, exactly, the Chamber does. ‘Two fundamental things,’ he replied. ‘We’re advocates. Sure we do studies, sure we do events, sure we do meetings, sure we have all kinds of stuff, but we’re advocates.’ And then he surprised me again with his candor. ‘The second thing we do is really more interesting,’ he said. ‘We’re the reinsurance industry for individual industry associations and state chambers of commerce and people of that nature.’”
What did Donohue mean by “reinsurance?” Verini elaborates later in his article:
“In other words, a large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover. For multibillion-dollar insurers, drug makers, and medical device manufacturers who are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work. ‘I want to give them all the deniability they need,’ says Donohue.”
“All the deniability they need.” That’s why the Chamber is so up in arms about the proposed executive order – because it will take away that “deniability” by laying bare which corporations are laundering their political contributions through third parties, undermining one of the core benefits the Chamber offers to its high-roller members.
Deniability is not a small business value. In fact, it’s the polar opposite of one - the value of doing what you say and saying what you do. Small business owners take responsibility for their actions. Big corporations should, too, including their political spending, and that’s why the Obama Administration should forge ahead with this executive order. It would be a victory for transparency and for a more level playing field for America’s small businesses.

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