CONTRIBUTOR

A wrong turn for contracting

OpArt by Michael Osbun
Posted May 20, 2011, at 10:38 p.m.

Here is the message the Obama administration proposes sending to businesses: Whether you are a small, family-owned company or a large corporation, if you want to do business with the federal government, you had better think twice before you contribute to political candidates or causes.

The White House has proposed an executive order that would discourage some businesses from competing for government contracts and chill the First Amendment rights of executives and directors. A draft of the order, titled “Disclosure of Political Spending by Government Contractors,” would in fact infuse politics into the contracting process.

In true Orwellian fashion, the draft order suggests that the only way to keep politics out of the contracting process is to include political information with every contract offer. If the White House gets its way, federal agencies would have to collect information on the campaign contributions and other political expenditures of potential contractors before a contract could be awarded. This far-reaching order would apply not only to contributions made by the contracting company but also to contributions made by its directors, officers and affiliates.

These requirements would apply retroactively to contributions made in the two years preceding the submission of an offer. Think about that — political donations made years before a contract is even contemplated would have to be shared with government officials. This would inevitably have a chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of individuals to contribute to the political causes and candidates of their choice.

The administration’s proposal violates the fundamental principle that federal contracts should be awarded free from political considerations and be based on the best value to taxpayers. Whether a prospective contractor agrees or disagrees with the political views of an administration should be irrelevant to the process. And why would federal contracting officials be required to collect information about political contributions if this information were not going to be used in the selection of the winning bidder?

Businesses that have supported conservative causes or whose directors have contributed to Republican candidates might well conclude that bidding for federal work would be a waste of their effort. Or vice versa, in the next Republican administration contributors to Democratic causes might feel intimidated. The result would be less competition for federal contracts and thus higher prices for goods and services procured by the federal government. At a time of severe budget constraints, the administration should be seeking to expand the pool of bidders, not shrink it.

On April 26, 27 senators wrote to the president to express opposition to this ill-conceived proposal. We pointed out that “political activity would obviously be chilled if prospective contractors have to fear that their livelihood could be threatened if the causes they support are disfavored by the Administration. No White House should be able to review your political party affiliation or the causes you support before deciding if you are worthy of a government contract. And no American should have to worry about whether their political activities or support will affect their ability to get or keep a federal contract.”

It simply doesn’t pass the straight-face test for this administration to suggest that such a dramatic change is needed to remove politics from the federal contracting process. Requiring disclosure of one’s political activities and leanings as part of that process would make it inevitable that politics would play a role in the award of federal contracts.

If more transparency is truly the goal, why don’t these requirements apply to organizations receiving federal grants? Campaign contributions to candidates and political committees already are required to be reported to the Federal Election Commission and, with a click of a mouse, can be viewed on FEC.gov.

A proposal that stifles First Amendment rights and politicizes the contracting process is a dangerous and costly step backward as we work to ensure that American taxpayers get the best value in the marketplace.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal contracting laws. This column was originally printed in The Washington Post.

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