This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
The way tomorrow’s election will go remains highly uncertain. If Trump loses, however, there is no doubt that his administration will set about destroying and pilfering all that it can. Already, as they stare down the barrel of electoral defeat, Trump and his entourage are previewing their lame-duck plan to shovel every federal dollar they can to family and friends.
On many issues, the Trump team seems to simply make it up as it goes along. But when it comes to looting public coffers in the seemingly waning days of Trump’s presidency, this administration got ahead of the game. As early as February, Trump officials were moving to get contracting awards for the border wall into companies’ hands faster by waiving rules that would require open-bidding or basic due diligence. Soon after, as the pandemic raged and the economy crashed, the administration announced that new, exorbitant contracts would go to firms with a well-documented history of Republican giving.
Despite the approaching election demanding more attention from Trump’s advisors-illegally-moonlighting-as-campaign-surrogates, the administration has still found the time to advance this key piece of the President’s agenda. According to a recent report from CNN, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, at Trump’s request, has been closely involved in a push to award a lucrative contract to lease spectrum from the Department of Defense to a firm with close ties to Trump donors. The contract would be worth tens of billions of dollars and provide the recipient an enormous technological advantage over competitors. In spite of that, the White House is trying to insist that the DOD circumvent regular procedures and, in essence, award it as a no-bid. As if that weren’t bad enough, Defense Department officials aren’t actually even sure that they want to award a lease for spectrum access at all given the potential security risks it might entail.
This would all be rather shocking if it weren’t for the fact that Trump and his associates have essentially been running this same play throughout his entire presidency. The Trump family has pulled in millions of dollars through seemingly preferential treatment, an uptick in business from foreign dignitaries and the hefty sums the Secret Service has had to pay out to Trump properties to house its agents as they protect the first family’s members. But the administration hasn’t just reserved the spoils for kin. Many Trump donors who were already in the government-contracting game have seen the number and size of their contracts increase.
In some cases, the harm from this blatant corruption might not rise above the level of inconvenience — lower quality goods or services, delivered at a slower pace. In others, however, its effects have been fatal. The failures of unqualified, politically-connected contracting firms in the wake of Hurricane Maria, for example, slowed the provision of critical aid and repairs. Meanwhile, Trump has complained about the expense of Puerto Rico’s recovery, even as his Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spent lavishly on repair contracts that seemed to do more to fuel contractors’ profits than deliver real relief. We won’t be surprised if a closer look at the vast web of contracts for pandemic response initiatives reveals similar cases where cronyism undermined efficacy at a critical moment.
Trump’s enthusiasm for government contracting may stand out as one of his most distinctive legacies. According to an analysis from Paul Light, who has documented the “true size of government” — including federal employees, contractors, and those paid by grants — for years, this administration has reached new contracting heights. Even if we set aside the very real concerns about corruption in federal procurement, the growth itself should represent cause for concern. In essence, Trump is shifting the work of government from an overwhelmingly unionized workforce, benefiting from job protections, to a much more precarious one. Research also suggests that the burden of lost employment from government outsourcing disproportionately falls to Black workers and women.
With these short- and long-term effects in mind, the possibility that Trump may award more and larger contracts over the coming months, with even less scrutiny, should raise alarm bells.
But Democrats aren’t helpless to thwart Trump, even if it can sometimes seem like they think they are. Both Congress and the potential Biden transition team can take steps in advance of inauguration to turn off the flow of ill-gotten funds. And if Biden takes office, his team should take a hard look at both the contracts put in place over the last four years, and the contracting practices that have given the Trump administration such a free hand to loot the public treasury.
First, House Democrats should stop issuing the Trump administration a blank check. The federal government is only funded through Dec. 11, and a new continuing resolution will be needed to avoid a shutdown. Congress should use its power to put limits on what an appropriation may be used for, and ban the use of funds for entering into new federal contracts or providing grants before Jan. 21, 2021. That will close the window on the Trump team’s pilfering, hopefully cutting off a number of pending egregious deals. If exceptions must be made for programs needed for health and safety, appropriators should make those instructions specific enough to limit the administration’s notoriously loose construction of appropriations rules.
This move may trigger a shutdown battle with a still Republican-held Senate or with a White House in full tantrum mode. Democrats should welcome such a battle. The narrative will be Republicans shutting down the government to protect Trump’s corruption, a perfect contrast to Biden’s return to an honest, competent federal government. And with Georgia senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler potentially having to defend that message in a January runoff, the fight may help grow the Senate Democratic caucus as well. And the shutdown will also block new contracts, along with imposing limits on Trump’s ability to hire his cronies into career positions or shovel out midnight deregulations. In fact, Democrats should just put those limits into the continuing resolution as well.
This is a rare chance for a do over. The last continuing resolution, passed in September, passed with no conditions. It did nothing to ensure election integrity, protect the ACA from its pending judicial elimination, or push forward coronavirus stimulus. Speaker Pelosi likely decided she didn’t want to introduce an electoral wildcard with Biden in the lead. Now House Democrats are as far from an election cycle as possible and should seize the opportunity to actually use power. A little ruthlessness in the lame duck may do wonders for bringing Republicans to the table in 2021.
The Biden transition team could act as well. Biden’s agency review teams for the General Services Administration (GSA) and Department of Defense (DOD), which administer most federal contracts, should play a coordinating role with teams at other agencies, identifying the egregious deals and figuring out how to terminate them on Jan. 20. This means adding procurement specialists to those teams along with the policy people. Transition leadership should let it be known that contractors who accept last minute giveaways will raise serious questions about their integrity and business ethics, a component for contractor evaluation. While this won’t scare off Trump’s unqualified golf buddies, it may keep the big Beltway players from going back for one last serving at the buffet.
Once the Biden administration has taken office, it should make it clear that all will not be forgotten. Along with internal reviews of no-bid contracts and those made to known Trump associates, Biden should publicly encourage qui tam suits under the False Claims Act. These suits incentivize whistleblowers to raise issues of fraud in exchange for a portion of the government’s recovery. GSA and DoD should also swiftly suspend or debar contractors that they find accepted sweetheart deals and vigorously pursue restitution of public funds.
Finally, Biden should pick up the baton from President Obama and keep shrinking the prevalence of contracting in the federal government. It’s actually more expensive than using federal employees. It promotes inequality, as discussed above. And it’s an easy vector for all forms of corruption, from a senior civil service executive angling for a lucrative job to the next unscrupulous demagogue elected to the Oval Office. Bringing the work back into the civil service realm will reduce that temptation and make public finances a little safer.
Like with so many other shocking violations of norms and laws, Biden and the Democrats will face tremendous pressure to forget the past and move forward on contracting. They should reject this impulse across the board. This country deserves a full, public reckoning of what has been done with public funds. An honest government depends on it.
Eleanor Eagan is a Research Assistant at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Yevgeny Shrago is a Visiting Fellow at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.