WASHINGTON — The second-ranking House Democrat said Tuesday he opposes a White House proposal to require anyone seeking government contracts to disclose political contributions.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the party whip, placed himself on the same side as Republicans and the business community — and against liberal groups demanding more disclosure.
Hoyer told reporters that contractors should be chosen on the merits of their applications, their bids and their capabilities, not on their political donations.
President Barack Obama's disclosure order, drafted in April, has not yet been issued.
One of Obama's sharpest critics, Chairman Darrell Issa of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has scheduled a hearing Thursday to hear from witnesses who believe the order would curb free speech and harm small businesses.
Hoyer told reporters, "It's not a requirement now. I don't think it ought to be a requirement. So I'm not in agreement with the administration on that issue."
Drafted April 13, Obama's proposal would require anyone submitting bids for government work to disclose two years' worth of political contributions and expenditures. The order would apply if the total exceeded $5,000 to a given recipient during a given year.
The total would include donations that officers, directors, affiliates and subsidiaries made to federal candidates and parties. But most important, it would cover donations to third-party entities that make independent political expenditures. Those donations are not disclosed currently.
Liberal groups that track campaign finance urge Obama to approve the order, so the public can identify at least some of the contributors to third- party groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Collectively, these third-party groups spend millions of dollars to influence presidential and congressional elections, but their donors are not disclosed.
The director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Jacob Lew, has declined Issa's invitation to testify at Thursday's hearing. Issa, in a letter to Lew on Monday, asked him to reconsider and threatened to issue a subpoena to force his future appearance.
Lew wrote Issa last week that he was unable to testify because the draft order "is still moving through the standard review and feedback process."
Hoyer, in his weekly session with reporters, said, "I think there are some serious questions as to what implications there are if somehow we consider political contributions in the context of awarding contracts."
He said the plan would raise questions if a Democratic contributor failed to win a contract with a Republican administration — or vice versa.
Hoyer represents a Maryland district in Washington's suburbs, an area rich in government contractors. His web page even provides advice on "Learning how to sell successfully to the U.S. government, the world's largest buyer of goods and services."
The draft order said it addresses "the perception that political campaign spending provides enhanced access to or favoritism in the contracting business."
Issa, in his letter to Lew, complained that the plan did not order disclosure of union contributions, "because unions and political advocacy groups receive millions of taxpayer dollars through federal grants."
Republicans appeared jubilant after learning of Hoyer's comments.
"I'm glad to see that somebody on the other side is standing up to this blatant attempt to intimidate people into either not contributing to causes the administration opposes or to the contrary," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He said Obama was seeking to inject politics into government contracting, which he called "a truly outrageous suggestion."
The White House proposal would temper a portion of the Supreme Court's 5-4 campaign finance ruling in January 2010. The decision vastly increased the power of big business and unions to influence government decisions by freeing them to spend their millions directly to sway elections for president and Congress.
The ruling allows unions and corporations to make contributions to third party groups that spend money on politics. Those groups operate under a provision of the tax code that allows them to accept money for political activities without disclosing the donors. The executive order would undermine that secrecy if the donors bid for government contracts.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy21, said of Hoyer's comments, "I just think he's wrong." The non-profit group is among the liberal organizations that have rallied in favor of the proposal.
"The reality is that government contractors have been making campaign finance disclosures for years," Wertheimer said, referring to donations to parties, political action committees and federal candidates. "This (the proposed order) picks up on additional disclosure that is necessary because of loopholes created" by the Supreme Court ruling.
Blair Latoff, spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber, said, "Ensuring that no administration has the capability of politically intimidating contractors is not a partisan issue." She said Hoyer's "belief that the government should award contracts based on merit for the job rather than political calculations is a belief the business community shares wholeheartedly."