When President Obama took office, he promised to lead a new era of government accountability. In fact, his administration was to be marked by an “unprecedented level of openness and transparency.” Yet recent signals from the White House raise serious questions about the president’s interest in transparency as a tool for responsible government and the potential that transparency will instead become a weapon of partisan political activity.
Weeks ago, the administration circulated a proposed executive order that would direct federal agencies to require contractors to disclose political expenditures before they are eligible to receive a contract. Compliance with this order will require federal contractors to solicit detailed information from their employees about their political affiliations and donations.
In short, the government will begin scrutinizing very private and personal information before awarding federal contracts.
There is now growing bipartisan and bicameral opposition on Capitol Hill about this unacceptable move. Republicans and Democrats alike are concerned that such disclosure requirements will unnecessarily politicize the procurement process, delay the delivery of goods and services to the federal government, and impose additional costs on an already deficit-laden federal budget.
Even more disconcerting is the apparent willingness of the administration to disregard basic constitutional protections. Rather than offering a proposal that is narrowly-tailored to a compelling government interest – the test used by the Supreme Court to uphold a government-imposed limitation on free speech – the administration wants to tie contract awards to the disclosure of a person’s political affiliations.
If authorized, the proposed executive order will mark a dramatic shift in procurement policy. Contracts could potentially be awarded on a basis other than the merits of a proposed bid and the competitiveness of the cost to U.S. taxpayers.
Politically-appointed administration officials involved in procurement decisions would, under this new regime, have ready access to the information about the party affiliations and political contributions of prospective contractors.
The risk is too high that this information could be used to inject partisanship into the federal procurement system, which has been designed to promote fairness and independence for all contractors seeking to do business with the federal government.
Beyond that, there are real world concerns that this new policy will have the practical effect of intimidating law-abiding Americans and shutting them out of profitable business opportunities for no other reason than their own personal opinions. It is never appropriate for the government to require a business to ask for that kind of information from its employees. Questions about an employee’s donations to groups that support or oppose abortion, same-sex marriage or other controversial issues would become standard procedure for the contracting community.
Every American benefits from a de-politicized procurement system. Political operatives in the administration, however, appear ready to undermine the principles of fairness and independence under the disguise of promoting transparency.
Real, principled transparency is never in conflict with our democratic system. The American people have a right to know what their government is doing with their money. But the recent White House proposal is at odds with fundamental principles of democracy; namely, the freedom to believe what we want, support what we believe, and not suffer discrimination by the federal government because of these choices.
Issa is the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.