Supreme Court campaign contribution rule could unleash ethics conundrum
But existing conflict of interest rules might hold the answer
- By Michael Lent
- Jan 25, 2010
If you have concerns about the effects of the Supreme Court ruling issued on Jan. 21 regarding companies discretion to contribute to political candidates, there’s a solution hiding in plain sight.
The ruling removes two precedents and more than half a century of limitations on candidate contributions from a firm’s general funds. For government contractors, the only way a company can weigh in with elected officials is through constitutent pressure, conventional lobbying, locking arms with clients, and public relations and media campaigns.
Now, it would seem, contractors are allowed to use cold, hard cash.
It’s easy to imagine industry elements who don’t want the change. Small business, clearly, could be disadvantaged by free-spending businesses with bigger pots of money available for political contributions. Companies with activist, conservatively ethical boards, plus watchful institutional investors, may get queasy about making political contributions. In certain situations that could backfire, say, when a company’s chosen candidate loses.
Selected members of Congress are already gearing up to legislate the door closed on company’s contribution to candidates — which certainly would undergo future court tests — and the president has already stated his opposition. But the administration has another obvious means.
Over multiple administrations the government has put in place policies and regulations and progressively strong enforcement of organizational conflict-of-interest (OCOI) regulations.
Let’s check our thinking: Isn’t a cash contribution to a candidate running for office by an organization the most obvious organizational statement one could make that is partisan and self-interested (and certainly acceptable from individual voters, as opposed to the “person” that corporations sometimes are for legal purposes)?
If that’s so, it needs full disclosure, which it would receive under existing Federal Election Commission regulations on contributions.
It’s then up to the agency planning to buy something to determine if the OCOI is acceptable. That’s an interesting hand grenade for an executive agency to pick up and examine.
Imagine the analysis. Connect the dots of the new or incumbent political candidate with the company’s present and future business interests. Be sure to triangulate the candidate with his/her committee assignments and ties with a federal facility or program or workers or officials.
Then, make a judgment about whether it is permissible for the contractor to both fund candidates and accept federal contracts.
We’ll let the administration, Congress, and the courts decide. Meanwhile, there will be a new spectacle of the usual acquisition pundits and skilled industry lobbyists doing their thing.
This is just what we need in the federal acquisition community, another sideshow that will drain valuable time and attention from the many persistent and vexing issues, while threatening the interests of both customer and company alike.
Michael Lent is editor and publisher of Government Services Insider, a newsletter covering industry developments and government policies that affect industry.