Partisan Procurement: Contracting with the United States Federal Government, 2003–2015

The forthcoming article “Partisan Procurement: Contracting with the United States Federal Government, 2003–2015” by Carl Dahlström, Mihály Fazekas and David E. Lewis is summarized by the author(s) below. 

In May 2020, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the former Health Department Official Dr. Rick Bright blew the whistle. He said that the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which is a unit within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was pressured to award lucrative contracts to politically connected firms and, furthermore, to prioritize political concerns over scientific judgements when setting timelines and deciding on projects intended to improve the health of the American people. Dr. Bright was ousted for speaking up against this practice.  

In our forthcoming article “Partisan Procurement. Contracting with the United States Federal Government, 2003–2015”, due to be published in the American Journal of Political Sciencewe show that Dr. Bright’s story fits into a larger pattern. The United States spends over one quarter of its budget buying goods and services from suppliers outside the public sector, with contracts typically set up between agencies and private firmsThe huge sums that the federal government spends on buying goods and services from outside of the public sector provides the president and his administration with powerful political tools. We suggest that the incumbent administration sometimes uses these sums for strategic government purchasing, which can, in turn, have electoral consequences. 

But aillustrated by Dr. Bright’s story, not all government officials would accept that favoritism and other political considerations play decisive roles in procurement processes. The president needs appointees from his administration inside agencies to create political pressure and more politicized agencies should therefore show favoritism to businesses in key electoral constituencies and to firms connected to political parties. 

And indeed, using new data on United States government contracts between 2003 and 2015, we find that executive departments, particularly more politicized department-wide offices, are the most likely to have contracts characterized by non-competitive procedures and outcomes, indicating favoritism. Politically responsive agencies – but only those – give out more non-competitive contracts in battleground states. We also observe greater turnover in firms receiving government contracts after party change in the White House, but only in the more politicized agencies. 

We conclude that agency designs that limit appointee representation in procurement decisions reduce political favoritism. The pressure Dr. Bright felt came from “…the senior leadership within the HHS”. To the extent these managers substitute professional with political criteria, procurement will be partisan.  

About the Author(s): Carl Dahlström is Professor, Department of Political Science at University of Gothenburg, Mihály Fazekas is Assistant Professor, School of Public Policy at Central European University and David E. Lewis is Rebecca Webb Wilson University Distinguished Professor, Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Their research “Partisan Procurement: Contracting with the United States Federal Government, 2003–2015” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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