There are better ideas for transparency in federal contracting

President Obama’s effort to force federal contractors to disclose the donations made by executives and directors to private groups like the Sierra Club and National Rifle Association is supposedly about bringing transparency to the federal bidding process. According to the so-called campaign finance ‘reform’ community, this will help fight what is termed ‘pay-to-play,’ where contracts are handed out based not on merit to the lowest bidder, but instead to those making campaign contributions and independent expenditures.

There are many reasons to be skeptical of this argument, beginning with the fact that this is only the most recent attempt by ‘reformers’ to strip away the right of citizens to privately associate and support organizations that share their values. Between the DISCLOSE Act, the rejected regulations considered by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the call for the Federal Communications Commission to enact onerous disclosure standards, and the petition submitted to the FEC and lawsuit filed against the FEC by Congressman Chris Van Hollen, it seems pretty obvious that this executive order is just one more attempt to stifle political speech that some feel the American public shouldn’t hear.

Another reason to be skeptical is that the information revealed would actually make it more likely that ‘pay-to-play’ allegations will be made more often, as the media and others will be quick to try to link the donations of executives and directors to specific contracts when in fact there is no connection. It’s hard to see how an increase in baseless accusations of impropriety will improve public confidence in the government contracting process.

And despite the claims that this is about bringing “transparency” to the federal contracting process, it really doesn’t, at least in any meaningful way. It doesn’t in fact show how or why contracting decisions are made, or what performance standards winning bidders are held to, or provide any actual information about the process of awarding contracts. It simply gives out personal information about the political, social, and ideological views of private citizens who are connected to companies winning bids.

If the goal is truly to bring transparency to the federal contracting process, then perhaps the administration could consider policies that actually bring transparency to the actual federal contracting process? I’m well outside of my area of expertise, and I apologize if I suggest a few things that are already being done, but it seems to me that the following types of policies would do more to enhance public confidence in the federal contracting process:

  • Reveal the final bids on all contracts, so the public can see if the winning bidder was indeed the lowest bidder
  • In cases where there is only one bidder, examine whether the requirements for being qualified to submit a bid are appropriate, and make public the results
  • Allow potential bidders to challenge the requirements for being a qualified bidder

There are no doubt many more and better ideas out there on things the Obama administration can do to bring greater transparency to the federal contracting process, which may in fact improve public confidence that contracts are being awarded based on merit and not any sort of political preference. And if in fact these things are already being done, then maybe the proper response if there is doubt about the integrity of the process is to point out these things and defend the process?

But there is little reason to believe that the executive order that has been proposed will improve the public’s perception, or is even intended to do so.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.