Marco Rubio usually says what he means. Which is why his fans -- and I count myself among them, even though I disagree with just about every one of his policies -- should be saddened by a small item at the bottom of his latest weekly newsletter titled "Marco Rubio Defends First Amendment Rights." It reads:
Earlier this week, Marco signed on to a letter to protect First Amendment rights of prospective federal contractors. A draft Executive Order from the Obama administration recently surfaced that would require federal agencies to collect information regarding campaign contributions and other political activity of potential contractors before those agencies award these companies with a contract. This puts politics squarely at the center of every federal contract offer, and will have a chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of individuals to contribute to the political causes or candidates of their choice.
The newsletter then encourages readers to visit Rubio's website, where the statement continues:
No potential contractors will feel free to exercise their First Amendment rights if they fear that this might negatively impact their chances of earning a contract. Where once these contracts were awarded based on merit, this Executive Order would eliminate impartiality and inject politics where it does not belong. Americans should never feel that their livelihoods are threatened by opinions that may run counter to those of the White House.
You can read the Executive Order to which Rubio refers here. (For whatever reason, Rubio doesn't link to it at all.) It's not a complicated document. All it demands is that contractors, their executives, and their officers refrain from making "certain contributions" while bidding on contracts -- presumably, contributions to those entities who will ultimately award the contracts -- and that those contractors/executives/officers reveal, when placing a bid, all the political contributions they've made in the preceding two years that total more than $5,000. Obama's order does not preclude even very generous donors from winning contracts, so no honorable businessman's bottom line ought to be affected.
Rubio argues that this doesn't matter -- that we shouldn't know and shouldn't want to know to whom our contractors have donated; that we should take it on faith that both contractors and politicians will behave honorably in their business dealings. He is saying, in effect, that the government that governs best is the one that is monitored least.
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In making such a ludicrous claim so blatantly, Rubio is either banking on his constituents' inability to read critically or else displaying his own profound ignorance of the world he inhabits. In order for his argument to make sense, this would have to be a world in which federal contracts really are awarded "on merit"; a world in which you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours politics plays no role in the awarding of federal contracts; a world in which politicians and federal contractors would never even think of giving or taking a bribe or wielding or succumbing to undue influence.
Nice as it sounds, that world isn't ours. And Marco Rubio knows it.
He must. For a recent, local, and famous example of why federal contractors might be worth keeping tabs on, Rubio need look no further than the weird spectacle of Harry Sargeant III. Sargeant hasn't been accused of bribing any government officials -- at least, he hasn't been accused of bribing American officials. But this billionaire oil man from Delray Beach has been found to have overcharged the American government (which is to say "the American taxpayer") by hundreds of millions of dollars on a series of federal contracts for shipping fuel to American airbases in western Iraq. How'd he get away with it? By using, ahem, "undue influence" on rich and powerful Jordanians to maintain a monopoly on the supply routes to the Iraqi border.
Which isn't to say that all federal contractors are skeezy or even that Harry Sargeant III is skeezy. It's to say that in the high-stakes world of federal contracting, competing bidders must necessarily use every advantage available to them, because if they don't, the next guy will. One of those advantages should not be a well-placed political donation.