Court upholds political contribution ban for federal contractors

A federal court on Tuesday upheld a longstanding prohibition on federal contractors making political contributions, handing a rare win to proponents of stronger campaign finance restrictions in an era of relaxed regulations.

The 75-year-old ban applies to individuals, corporations and firms that are negotiating or working under federal contracts. While doing so, they cannot give money to federal candidates, parties or committees.

The rule is predicated on the idea that such donations could be a corrupting influence.

In his decision, Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, wrote that the contribution ban did not constitute a violation of free speech or the plaintiffs’ equal protection rights “because the concerns that spurred the original bar remain as important today as when the statute was enacted.”

“The statute is closely drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgment of associational freedoms,” he added in his decision.

The suit was narrowly tailored to individual contractors and did not comment on the similar ban that applies to corporations receiving federal contracts.

Alan Morrison, who represented the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed with the ruling, according to a Reuters report, but he declined to comment further.

The ruling served as a win for proponents of strong campaign finance restrictions, following a succession of major federal court rulings that have effectively eased rules on political contributions.

Election law watchdogs hailed the ruling on Tuesday, with the Campaign Legal Center calling it a “major victory for democracy.”

“Longstanding legal precedent and the long and dismal history of contracting scandals clearly support the law,” said Tara Malloy, a senior counsel at the organization. “Pay-to-play scandals are as old as the Republic, and this Court has again recognized the vital public interest in preventing such abuses.”  

Democracy 21, another watchdog group that, along with the Campaign Legal Center and Public Citizen, had filed a joint brief in the case in support of the ban, also celebrated the ruling.

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said the decision “also provides a solid basis for President Obama to issue an Executive Order that is currently under White House consideration to require federal contractors to disclose the money they spend to influence federal elections.”

The plaintiffs in the case, a trio of contractors, sued the Federal Election Commission in 2011 after being barred from making political donations during the 2012 election cycle.