The federal contracting process needs to be fair. This isn't a statement that most would dispute. Nor would anyone likely take issue with the ideas that small businesses should have a fair shot when they go seek government dollars to do work, and that politics (and the money that so epitomizes it) shouldn't be a factor in awards granted to any contractor.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has an important requirement to make 23 percent of its purchases from small businesses. This is a critical number as we strive for small business equity, but a new Public Citizen report shows that unfortunately the numbers assessing whether the SBA is hitting this goal may rely on methodologies that conflict with federal law and regulations.
In 2013, seven of the 10 largest federal contractors received at least one contract that the SBA counted toward fulfillment of small business goal. Every year since fiscal year 2006, the SBA's Office of Inspector General has listed procurement flaws that "allow large firms to obtain small business awards" as the first item in its annual enumeration of challenges facing the SBA.
Already, the deck seems to be stacked in favor of large contractors.
One factor that may be motivating this inequity is that larger contractors make significant political campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures, both directly and through dark money expenditures. Transparency is an important remedy to this problem, as the public deserves to know if the biggest contractors are using secret purse strings to line up advantages, and if this in any way tips the scales of contract awards.
Any unfairness (or even the perception of it) in the contracting process is a problem when taxpayer dollars are at stake. Secret contractor spending implies a pay-to-play culture in which the public cannot discern whether awards are going to those best able to play the political money game, or to those offering the most efficient and high-quality product or service, let alone whether small businesses are getting a fair shot at contracts.
Fortunately, President Barack Obama has the ability to remedy at least part of this problem with the stroke of a pen. The president could issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose political spending.
Government contractors are needed at every level of government; as we purchase everything from pencils, to airplanes, to road repairs from businesses. As taxpayers, we deserve to be sure that the rationale behind these purchasing decisions is balanced toward smaller companies, and that rewards are made only on merit, never political clout.
Again, President Obama has the means to take steps toward improving this system, and to do away with any perception that influence-peddling is influencing the contracting process. We pay taxes with the understanding that our money will be used for important public services and needs. In return, we deserve straightforward disclosure of political contributions from any company that has done business with the government.
The opportunity to improve the efficiency and fairness of the contracting process and to shine a light on the dark money problem in our democracy is before us. We hope the administration seizes it.