The Sierra Club sent a letter to President Obama this week, urging the President to make good on his promise of increasing transparency in Washington. Specifically, the environmental group wants the administration to be forthright about the political spending of mega-polluters and their government contracts.
Courtney Hight, director of the Sierra Club’s Democracy Program, issued the following statement after the letter was sent: “Corporations and big polluters already have too much power and influence on our government and our elections. The President has an opportunity to bring more transparency to the billions poured into our system from corporations by issuing this executive order. This action alone won’t bring all corporate election spending into the light of day, but it will begin to lift the curtain and let some light in.”
In addition to the Sierra Club, other signatories include the NRDC, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the League of Conservation Voters, and several other prominent environmental groups.
The groups are hoping that President Obama will issue an executive order forcing any company seeking or receiving a government contract to publicly disclose their lobbying and campaign spending. While this information is mostly available, the process of connecting the dots between spending and contracts is a bureaucratic nightmare.
An executive order from the president would take the guesswork out of the equation and create a system of transparency that is severely lacking in the current system.
The Sierra Club has good reason to be concerned. The available data shows that some of the country’s biggest polluters are also the recipients of some of the largest federal contracts.
In 2012, for example, 17 of the top 100 recipients of government contracts were listed as some of the worst polluters in America. These companies included General Electric (2nd in the U.S. at the time for air pollution), Shell, Exxon, Halliburton, and BP.
And in terms of spending on lobbying and direct campaign donations, these corporations are also at the top of that list.
The saddest part of this story is that these environmental groups should never have had to send a letter to the president asking for transparency, because polluters were never meant to secure contracts from the government.
According to an Environmental Protection Agency press release in 1975, new rules were put in place that expressly forbade the government from issuing a contract to a company that violated the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 or the Clean Air Act of 1970. This was meant to be a joint effort between the states and federal agencies to crack down on corporations that refused to comply with federal laws.
Fast forward 40 years, and we now have a system in place that not only refuses to punish polluters, but actually rewards them with tax breaks, deferred prosecutions, and even multi-million dollar federal contracts.
And thanks to our new system of virtually unlimited political spending, it seems unlikely that this system is going to change without a massive fight.