Agency Spending and Partisan Politics

Dec 21 '11

In 2007, a White House political affairs official made a presentation to political appointees in the General Services Administration, asking them to prioritize spending in 55 congressional districts that the Republican Party was either targeting or trying to defend. As this “new article”: (paywalled – can’t find a non-paywalled version) by Sanford Gordon in the _American Political Science Review_ points out, this provides a very nice quasi-experiment. Most political scientists, if they were obliged to guess, would think that officials will direct spending for partisan purposes when they think they can get away with it. However, it is more difficult than you might think to prove this. In the absence of direct evidence on officials’ plans (which is usually hard to come by), there are not any very good proxies which would allow us to measure the effects of partisan motivations. But when we have (as we have here) a copy of the PowerPoint directing officials’ attention towards a particular subset of districts, and data on GSA spending, we can start to do stuff, as Gordon shows. And the results are unambiguous.

bq. Turning to the building contracts, more pronounced and significant effects appear for defense districts. Vendors in Republican districts labeled vulnerable experienced contracts an estimated 272% larger than those in their unmentioned counterparts. … To get a sense of the substantive magnitude of these effects, consider that the median Republican defense district had payments under public buildings contracts not requiring congressional review worth about $53,000 in the 59-day period following the Political Affairs briefing. The counterfactual level of expenditures in that district in the absence of a briefing is just $14,000. Across all defense districts, the PBS made almost $18.7 million in contract obligations in the postbriefing period. The model anticipates that in the absence of a briefing, these districts would have received $5.0 million. The roughly $14 million difference represents 8.4% of total PBS payments for the period. … Next, I consider how, and to what extent, coverage of the scandal beginning with the Washington Post story of March 26 altered GSA contracting decisions … consider the effect of the story on buildings contracts for districts labeled “defense” or “priority defense.” The estimates suggest that vulnerable Republican districts experienced a 72% _decline_ in building contracts compared to unmentioned districts following the story’s release, relative to the period between the briefing and the Post story.

In absolute terms, these are not enormous sums (although they account for a quite significant share of the relevant budget lines over a period which was rapidly truncated due to public revelation of the scandal). However, it is at least possible, as Gordon argues, that they are the tip of a rather larger iceberg.

bq. A question related to the issue of political benefit concerns whether the GSA scandal was an isolated incident or part of a more general pattern of executive influence. To the extent that the threat of bad publicity might mute incentives to politicize, we should expect systematic evidence of it to be the exception rather than the rule. In January 2011, however, the Office of Special Counsel issued a report listing 75 separate briefings by personnel at the White House Office of Political Affairs from 2001 to 2007 to political appointees in different agencies. This report lends support to the contention that the GSA briefing was representative of a broader phenomenon (at least within the most recent past administration); moreover, it suggests an avenue for future research, in which the effects of these briefings can be compared across different agencies rather than simply between two parts of the same agency.