Influence of Corporate Campaign Contributions in Government Contract Award Decisions
In the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court decision “Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission,” the level of corporate spending on federal elections has increased significantly. In making such donations, corporations are not selfless, of course — one goal is often to secure government contracts. Awarding contracts for political reasons can lead, obviously, to systemic corruption, and for taxpayers it can mean the inefficient allocation of public resources.
A 2011 study from St. Louis University published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, “Campaign Contributions, Access, and Government Contracting,” examined the success of corporations in securing government contracts through campaign donations. The researcher conducts case studies of two instances of politically motivated contracts — one related to the Iraq war and the other with Hurricane Katrina — and analyzes data from 367 firms with corporate PACs active between 1979 and 2006 across a variety of industries.
Key findings from the study include:
- For each additional $201,220 in campaign contributions, a firm could expect to receive an additional 107 contracts on average. This increase translates into roughly $5,300,000 in additional revenues.
- Campaign contributions, firm reputation, and past contracting relationships are all important factors influencing contract award decisions. Of these three, past relationships are the most important in this sample.
- In the realm of defense contracting, there is no evidence that the process is overly politicized compared to non-defense contracting; in fact, the process may be less politicized and depend more strongly on the management of ongoing relationships.
The contractor-politician relationship is not generally a quid pro quo, but the access that contractors receive for their contributions can confer tangible benefits, the study’s author concludes: “In many ways, the results of this analysis confirm what many public administration scholars argue in studies of different aspects of public manager decision making—that managers balance political and technical considerations in an attempt to fashion programs that serve the public good.”
Tags: Congress, ethics, law, elections, campaign fundraising, corruption
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related Washington Post article "The Influence Industry: ‘Super PACs’ Could Test Campaign Finance Law."
- If you were to revise the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.