This time of year many of us in engineering and construction are receiving phone calls from politicians looking for campaign contributions.
They remind me how much I love pay-to-play rules.
There was a time when these calls would be cause for all sorts of handwringing. If we didn’t give, we all felt we would be on the losers list. I can’t tell you what a great relief it is to be able to tell a candidate who invites me to a $10,000-a-plate dinner, “Gee I would love to go but I can’t go because of pay-to-play rules.”
Pay-to-play rules seek to curb donations in exchange for services or the opportunity to engage in activities. The rules are aimed at CEOs, CFOs, COOs, senior managers, lobbyists and in some cases individuals who own or control 10% or more of a company.
The rules differ from state to state and even from city to city, but their intent is the same—to discourage unfair treatment and corrupt dealings between government and the private sector with which it does business. The rules cap the amount of money a firm can give a candidate, and provide guidelines on gifts and services that companies can offer government employees.
I have a unique vantage on the history of pay-to-play.
I’ve been on both sides of the fence on this issue: as a government employee for the first 20 years of my career, and then as a consultant in the private sector for the past two decades.
I was also a survivor of the worst scandal to hit New York City government in the 20th Century, in the late 1980s during the administration of Mayor Edward I. Koch. The city’s powerful political party bosses went to jail for bribery and a slew of other charges involving the Department of Transportation.
As the only official not implicated, I was made a witness and elevated to chief engineer of the city’s Dept. of Transportation. I became acutely aware of the coziness between contractors and elected and appointed officials. It has also increased my repulsion to campaign contributions; I welcome prohibitions against campaign contributions by companies and owners doing business with government.
As pay-to-play laws evolve, however, there remain shades of gray. The campaign contribution limit in your state may be $500 per candidate, but say you want to host a political fundraiser in your home promising to raise $10,000. Can you do it?
There may not be restrictions on this practice, known as “batching,” but remember there should be no quid pro quo between you and the candidate or the campaign. And be careful of having too many people from your firm at the fundraiser.
Likewise, it is not ethical to ask employees to donate to a campaign with a so-called nod and a wink, which is essentially a promise that they will be compensated with a “bonus” or other form of repayment.
At the same time, every American has the right to support the political party of their choice. The National Society of Professional Engineers acknowledges the need and interest of firms to “become actively involved in the political contributions” and encourages “all engineers to support political candidates who have demonstrated through their activities a commitment to ethical professional practices.” A good way to do this is to give a contribution to a political action committee (PAC) created by a professional society, which donates to candidates who are good for the industry.
Remember, good ethics equals good business.