Why Democrats Are Losing The Messaging War On Federal Contractor Disclosure

Campaign finance reformer advocates aren’t only facing setbacks in federal courtrooms — they’re also getting beat on the messaging war with Republicans over a proposal to make federal contractors disclose their donations to third-party groups.Somewhere along the way, an Obama proposal which would increase transparency in the federal contracting process by requiring companies bidding on contracts to disclose their political donations to third party groups became a sneaky plot by the Obama administration to silence political opponents.

“I think there’s been pretty weak messaging from the left,” John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation told TPM. “They didn’t really wage a very strong PR battle, and now the left is kind of silent on the draft executive order. The right has chosen their talking points, they’re painting it as politicization — even though that’s ridiculous because no ‘pay to play’ scheme is based on public, online disclosure.”

“The left is either silent on the issue or capitulating to the right and defending contractors ability to spend secret money in elections, which is just stunning,” Wonderlich said.

The administration’s draft executive order was first leaked to Hans von Spakovsky, a former Bush administration official whose nomination to the Federal Election Commission was scuttled by Democrats, who dubbed the administration’s proposal an “executive fiat” and published it on the conservative website of Pajamas Media.

Next up, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in, calling the proposal a “backdoor attempt” to silence White House critics and vowing to “fight it through all available means.”

The usual suspects lined up to back the measure: 30 various open government and political organizations wrote a letter to President Obama stating the order would “keep in check actual or perceived corruption in government contracting.”

Congressional Republicans quickly followed, calling the proposed executive order a “blatant attempt to intimidate, and potentially silence certain speakers who are engaged in their constitutionally protected right to free speech. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa held a hearing on the issue where he called the proposal “Chicago hardball politics,” and later released an edited video that accused the administration for being against transparency for not turning over a draft executive order.

There were plenty of Republicans speaking out against the measure, but not many Democrats rallying behind it. The White House would only offer limited comment since the executive order was only in draft form, and members of Congress couldn’t offer a very impassioned defense of a document they didn’t know the details of.

Finally, the House passed an amendment to a defense bill which would ban federal agencies from collecting data on the donations of federal contractors around the same time as two Republican committee chairmen introduced a bill with an aspirational title: the “Keeping Politics Out of Federal Contracting Act of 2011.”

“It used to be that conservatives all said, ‘Well we don’t really like campaign finance regulation, we just think everything should be on the Internet’,” Sunlight’s Wonderlich said. “Now it’s a question about trying to put everything on the Internet and suddenly there’s not support anymore.”

A Democrat close to the situation acknowledged that the way the proposal came out put supporters on the defensive.

“Obviously the leak was unfortunate,” the source said. “But here’s what I think could come back and bite people in the ass — since when is the chairman of the Oversight Committee, which has been such fierce opponents of this, become such a fierce opponent of government transparency?”

“It is rich to say the least that the oversight committee would oppose disclosure and transparency,” the source said. “I think that we’re right on the merits and that if the decision is made to move forward, they could very well likely find themselves facing opposition on this.”

A House Democratic aide maintained that no particular side had won the messaging battle yet and said they planned to continue to question why Republicans “would not want increased transparency,” especially when polls show that the majority of Americans support increased disclosure of political donations.

But the aide acknowledged that Democrats could “do a better job simplifying the issue.”

Sunlight’s Wonderlich pointed out that making federal contractors disclose their donations wouldn’t be a very effective way of favoring political allies and punishing opponents since it would all be out in the open.

“It would be a very poorly designed way of extorting money from federal contractors to have it be publicly disclosed, because now everybody can review it,” Wonderlich said. “Whenever the right tries to demonize this executive order they say ‘you don’t want to have your political speech disclosed to contracting officials.’ They never say publicly disclosed, they always act like it’s only be disclosed to the contracting officials.”

“It’s frustrating, the left has been pretty weak at messaging on this point,” Wonderlich said. “It’s easy to organize around ‘no,’ but if you’re organizing around a draft executive order that has a bunch of wonky details, it’s a little bit harder to defend something that’s not official yet.”

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