Of Politics and Procurement

Reporting campaign contributions would open the door to unintended consequences.

How best to say this?  “Here we go again?”   Once more, a group of well-intentioned members of Congress are pushing the president to issue a directive that would mandate that contractors disclose all of their political contributions upon being awarded a government contract.  Transparency, we are told, is essential to the integrity of the procurement process.

Odd as it may sound, they are half right.  The integrity of the process is essential. But in this case, the “transparency” being discussed actually risks opening the door to the very kind of malfeasance the acquisition system is designed to avoid. It is a poorly conceived proposal that should be set aside -- for good.

So, what is the big deal?  There are several reasons to strongly oppose the proposal. 

First, while it  is designed to expose the role of politics in what is supposed to be an apolitical process, the proposal will, in fact, introduce politics where it neither exists nor belongs. By and large the procurement process operates outside of the political arena, as it should. Certainly, members of Congress have virtually no influence over award decisions (nor should they). Thus, while earlier versions of the proposal would have required that disclosures be included with all bids for federal contracts, cooler heads recognized the obvious dangers of the idea.

Legislation to prohibit such disclosures during the bid process has twice passed in Congress. After all, who is to say that such information would not influence a government evaluator’s decisions for all the wrong reasons? It would be nearly impossible to ensure that the evaluator’s own political beliefs and allegiances have no influence on their decisions. The evaluation of proposals should, as intended under law, be focused solely on quality; the contribution disclosure only adds a dangerous distraction. And Congress was right to prohibit doing so.

More recent proposals seek to circumvent this part of the problem by requiring disclosure after a contract is awarded. But that seems rather pointless. What purpose would it serve? Political action committees and individuals already have to publicly report political contributions via the Federal Election Commission. So, why add yet another reporting requirement?

The answer apparently lies in the role of super PACs, which have in many ways supplanted traditional party and candidate fundraising as political forces. They are also exempt from FEC disclosure requirements.

There are many who believe that is a serious problem and who are looking for ways to change the paradigm. I happen to share their concerns, strongly support openness in politics, and would love to see super PAC contributions reported. But that does not mean it is a good, reasonable or fair idea, or even legal, to arbitrarily single out government contractors for unique disclosure requirements that, as decided by the courts, don’t apply to anyone else. This is especially true since there is not a scintilla of evidence that contractor contributions to candidates or super PACs have any impact on the outcomes of competitive government procurements. While proponents like to argue that since the disclosures only come after a contract award they will not have undue influence over the process, they forget one thing: Once the disclosures are made they cannot be undone; their influence and impact could easily extend well into future competitions.

Which brings us back to the question of transparency in procurement. Balky and challenging as it often is, the procurement process is full of checks and balances to ensure that the government treats all offerors fairly and arrives at a decision that is in the government’s best interests. Linking that process in any way to politics could result in just the opposite, as it opens the door to a range of unintended and unanticipated consequences.

Transparency in politics is crucial. So too is the integrity of the procurement process. In this case, the combination of the two is a dangerous brew.

Stan Soloway is former CEO of the Professional Services Council and a former deputy undersecretary of defense.

(Image via evka119/Shutterstock.com)