Is the President’s Call for Federal Contractors to Disclose Campaign Contributions an Attack on Free Speech?

Print Share on LinkedIn More

October 11, 2011; Source: The Washington TimesThe Capital Research Center is a Washington-based conservative think tank focusing on nonprofit and philanthropic issues. The Center’s president, Terry Scanlon, has an op-ed in the Washington Times (DC’s conservative daily competing with the Washington Post) explaining what he sees as the shortcomings of President Obama’s call that corporations that seek to do federal contract or grant work should be required to disclose what they are spending on political contributions—and to whose campaigns.  To Scanlon, “That’s a Chicago ward heeler’s solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

At its core, Scanlon’s argument depends on the notion, articulated recently by presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the famous comment, “corporations are people, my friend.”  The notion of corporate “personhood” is what Scanlon, citing the Citizens United case, uses to suggest that you can’t prohibit the political speech of citizens, associations of citizens, or corporations-as-persons.  In his analysis, what’s good for the corporeal person is good for the corporate person. 

The Obama Administration claims that disclosure of corporate donations would “protect the public from influence peddling and bring transparency and accountability to the contracting system,” but Scanlon and his Center colleagues believe that the President’s executive order “would politicize and bureaucratize the federal procurement process like never before…allow(ing) politicians to reward their corporate supporters and punish their enemies.”  In this world of computerized everything, Scanlon frets about “the enormous amount of red tape the order’s reporting requirements and timetables will create.”  The end result would “chill if not freeze political free speech.”

It’s not quite clear how the  proposed executive order harms the rights of 501(c)(3) public charities seeking federal contracts since nonprofit corporate persons aren’t allowed to do that, but Scanlon sees the President’s purpose as carrying out the left’s “backdoor attack on the First Amendment” in its “ongoing struggle to impose government control over the business community.”

Would disclosing corporate campaign donations politicize the federal procurement process, allowing federal bureaucrats to check the political provenance of potential bidders? Scanlon must have forgotten President Bush’s HUD Secretary, the execrable Alphonso Jackson, who in 2006 got himself into hot water for revealing that he scotched a contract at HUD because the business executive said he wasn’t quite a fan of the President.  Does Scanlon think that the secretaries, deputy secretaries, and assistant secretaries don’t know which bidders are making campaign contributions?  Please!

They all know, but the public doesn’t know.  The President’s proposed executive order requiring corporations bidding on federal work to disclose their contributions would tell the public what it needs to know—and that might put the brakes on federal bureaucrats awarding contracts to political buddies or imitating Alphonso Jackson to kill contracts that might be held by critics or opponents.  And since public charities don’t make political contributions, else they risk their 501(c)(3) status, how do nonprofits fit into this?  Tell us what you think of Scanlon’s analysis.—Rick Cohen