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Conflict of interest: Contractors and their political spending

Robert Reich

Tess Vigeland: President Obama met with Congressional Republicans at the White House today. The agenda: coming to an agreement on the government's ability to borrow. Yes, the debt ceiling. The big sticking point, of course, is whether spending cuts will be attached to that legislation.

But commentator Robert Reich wants another policy topic front and center. And he says, it too, has a lot to do with your taxpayer dollars.


Robert Reich: President Obama is mulling an executive order requiring that big government contractors disclose their political spending. He should stop their political spending altogether.

Take Lockheed Martin, the nation's largest contractor. The company has received nearly $20 billion in federal contracts so far this year. It's already spent more than $4 million lobbying Congress.

Lockheed has also been spending more than $3 million a year on political contributions to members of Congress that vote its way. And an undisclosed amount to the Aerospace Industries Association to lobby for a bigger Defense budget.

But wait a minute. You and I and other taxpayers are Lockheed's biggest customer. As such, we are financing this political activity. It's one of the most insidious conflicts of interest in American politics.

And Lockheed is hardly unique. The 10 biggest government contractors are all defense contractors. Every one of them gets most of its revenues from the federal government. And everyone uses a portion of that money to lobby for even more Defense contracts.

That's one reason the Defense procurement budget keeps growing like topsy. Next year's expected drawdown of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq was supposed to save money. But Lockheed and other giant defense contractors have made sure all anticipated savings will go to new weapons systems.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United -- extending First Amendment rights to corporations -- there's no limit on what Lockheed and other defense contractors can spend on politics.

This is nonsense. It's our money.

Over a half century ago, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the dangers of an unbridled military-industrial complex, as he called it. It's now a military-industrial-congressional complex. And after Citizens United, it's more unbridled than ever.

The president should issue his executive order requiring government contractors disclose their political contributions. But he should go further and ban political activities by all corporations getting more than half their revenues from the federal government.


Vigeland: Robert Reich served as secretary of labor under President Clinton. His most recent book is called Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future. Next week, David Frum. Send us your comments -- click on the contact link.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

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