May 23, 2011

In a television interview last October, President Obama accidentally let slip a key element of his political philosophy: “We’re gonna punish our enemies, and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.”

Obama later apologized — not for the underlying sentiment, mind you, but for his word choice. “I probably should have used the word ‘opponents’ instead of enemies,” the president declared.

This incident is worth remembering as the president prepares to issue a far-reaching executive order that would require the government to collect detailed information about the political activities of anyone applying for a federal contract. The proposed order would require businesses to furnish, with each contract proposal, a list not only of their contributions to political candidates and committees, but also their contributions to groups that do not under current law have to reveal their donors. The president’s order would force anyone seeking a federal contract to declare whether they are a friend or an enemy — excuse me, “opponent” — of the Obama White House. Worse still, it would set up a central database listing those contributions at a federal government Web site — creating what amounts to an electronic, searchable “enemies list.”

Why is this a bad idea? Recall that in August 1971, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean penned a confidential memorandum in which he proposed creating a list of “our political enemies.” The purpose of the exercise, according to Dean, was to “determine what sorts of dealings these individuals have with the Federal Government and how we can best screw them (e.g., grant availability, federal contracts.. . . etc.)” Since then, enormous steps have been taken to clean up the federal contracting process and ensure that government contracts are granted solely on the basis of merit. Obama’s proposed executive order would undermine that progress, reverse years of effort to remove politics from contracting decisions and create incentives for impropriety.

Even if no corrupt action is ever taken by the president’s political appointees, just the existence of these new rules would have a chilling effect on free speech. Businesses that disagree with the president’s policies would be discouraged from exercising their right to free expression for fear that doing so would jeopardize their chances of being awarded government contracts. Meanwhile, there would be an unspoken incentive for businesses seeking contracts to contribute to candidates and causes supported by the White House.

The proposed executive order is so bad that even some senior Democrats on Capitol Hill are refusing to go along. Last week the second-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer, broke ranks with the administration, declaring “The issue on contracting ought to be on the merits of the contractors’ bid and capabilities. I think there are some serious questions as to what implications there are if somehow we consider political implications in the context of awarding contracts.” Meanwhile Sens., Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate subcommittee responsible for contracting oversight, joined Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) in writing a bipartisan letter warning that the proposed order “risks injecting politics into the contracting process” and urging President Obama to reconsider. “The requirement that businesses disclose political expenditures as part of the offer process creates the appearance that this type of information could become a factor in the award of federal contracts,” the senators wrote.

Political contributions should never be considered by any procurement officer when making contract decisions — so why would the Obama administration want to require businesses to disclose those contributions to procurement officers when applying for government contracts? Unless Obama is trying to bring the Chicago “pay-to-play” culture to Washington, his order makes no sense. Or perhaps the president who believes in “punishing enemies” wants to know who is backing independent groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS that have been so effective in opposing his agenda in Washington. And since Congress refused to go along with his Disclose Act, the only way he can compile such a list of his political adversaries is by forcing their donors who apply for federal contracts to provide the information. In other words, this effort isn’t about improving the integrity of federal contracting; it’s about Nixonian political intimidation. But with one crucial difference: Even Richard Nixon didn’t create his enemies list by executive order.