At the beginning of Thursday's House Committee on Oversight and Government reform hearing, Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., read a mission statement—one that he reads at the start of each hearing—declaring the need to account for how the government spends its money. Then he spent the hearing arguing against a draft proposal from President Obama that would call for more transparency from federal contractors.
The plan would require contractors doing work for the government to disclose political contributions before receiving a work bid. Issa said that such a requirement could have a “chilling effect” on free speech and would also be a burden to small businesses ill-equipped for such oversight.
It’s not fair, Issa said, to put private citizens in the awkward position of having to disclose “deeply personal information”— like whether they support anti-abortion organizations or gay marriage legislation—that could be “detrimental to their careers.”
Ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said he thinks that logic is bunk.
“I never thought I would see the day where our committee would view transparency as the enemy,” Cummings said at the hearing.
Testifying before the panel on behalf of the administration was Office of Management and Budget official Daniel Gordon. Gordon said he could not speak on the draft proposal, as it was subject to change and did not yet reflect official policy. But he said “unequivocally that this administration has always been, and remains committed, 100 percent committed, to a merit-based contracting process.” In fact, he said, the disclosure of information would not be used to determine whether a contractor received a job or not.
Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., pounced on this idea, saying that it sounded like the administration was asking for “unnecessary information.” Graves pointed out that much of this information is already available after a company receives a contract, and there is no need to know political affiliations beforehand. “This disturbs me,” he said.
Indeed, Obama’s proposal has rankled some members on both sides of the aisle. Four members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs—two Republicans, a Democrat, and an independent—penned a letter to the president on Thursday urging him to reconsider his position on the proposed mandated disclosures.
Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, wrote that while they share Obama’s “commitment to ensuring that the federal contracting process is not influenced by political activity or favoritism,” they also worry that requiring “businesses to disclose their political activity when making an offer risks injecting politics into the contracting process.”
With election spending reaching unprecedented levels in 2010 after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case—which allowed corporations and unions to make direct political donations—disclosure has been a heated issue in Washington.
But the senators say the draft executive order, if enacted, would put an unnecessary burden on those tasked with overseeing federal contracts, and wouldn’t even have much of an effect. They write that federal contracting law already “precludes the consideration of political activity in evaluating contract offers,” and that under the Federal Acquisition Regulation, “the award of a contract must be based on the evaluation of quality, price, past performances,” and other merit-based factors.
Republicans on the Hill have been touting the letter as proof that there is a schism in the Democratic Party over the initiative.
“With a now bipartisan outcry against an order which would put politics before the best interest of our taxpayers, the Administration needs to provide candid answers,” said a statement from Issa. “Concerns that this executive order that will have a chilling effect on contractors who fear a corrupt Chicago-style spoils system where contracts are tied to partisan political affiliations are very real. President Obama would be wrong to try and ignore this clear and bipartisan opposition.”
Earlier this week, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., bucked up against the proposal, saying, “I am not in agreement with the administration on that issue.”
“I think the issue on contracting ought to be on the merits of the contractor’s application and bid and capabilities,” Hoyer said in a meeting with reporters on Tuesday. “I think there are some serious questions as to what implications there are if somehow we consider political contributions in the context of awarding contracts.”
These comments allowed for a rare response from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
“Certainly, I am in agreement with the Democratic whip,” Cantor said.