New Deal for Contracting

Sen. Susan Collins said
Sen. Susan Collins said "we must do a better job of protecting taxpayer dollars." (By Carol T. Powers -- Bloomberg News)
By Stephen Barr
Friday, November 9, 2007

The Senate has approved a bipartisan bill to tighten up scandal-prone contracting practices across government, spurred by the troubled cleanup after Hurricane Katrina and wasteful spending on Iraq war reconstruction.

The bill would mandate steps to strengthen the federal acquisition workforce, which was hollowed out in the 1990s by budget cuts and downsizing. It would also establish a government-wide acquisition intern program to help recruit contract specialists and create an executive position in the Office of Management and Budget to oversee and nurture the acquisition workforce.

Members of Congress are increasingly concerned about contracts that the government has been awarding with little or no competition. They believe it needs to adopt practices that promote accountability and transparency. Changes to the procurement system could be made this year and next.

Another possible avenue for these changes is a defense bill that authorizes weapons and military programs for this fiscal year. House and Senate negotiators are trying to wrap up that bill, which will probably include some government-wide provisions to curb waste and fraud in procurement. However, it faces a veto threat over provisions not related to procurement.

The Senate bill, which would cover all federal agencies, was approved late Wednesday on a voice vote with no debate. It is sponsored by Sens. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) The House approved a bill in March that would clamp down on contract abuse across the government. Its chief sponsor is Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).

A number of provisions in the bills are drawn from information collected during an 18-month review by an advisory panel Congress created in 2003, and from reports issued by inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office.

The government spends about $400 billion annually on goods and services. About half of that amount is awarded through no-bid or limited-competition contracts, or ones that fall short of the goal of full and open competition, according to Collins and Lieberman.

"Whether the problem is purchases of unusable trailers for hurricane victims, shoddy construction of schools and clinics in Iraq, or abuse of purchase cards by government employees, we must do a better job of protecting taxpayer dollars," Collins said.

Lieberman said that "the problem will only worsen in the years ahead" and that the government and contractors "have a responsibility to do a better job than they are now."

The Senate bill seeks to address the growth in task-order contracts, which carry basic terms and conditions and are used by agencies to place orders for specific goods and services.

It would require agencies to run competitions for all task orders worth more than $100,000. For orders of more than $5 million, agencies would have to include more information in the contract's statement of work than is currently required. Agencies also could not award a task-order contract for more than $100 million to only one vendor without publication of justification and approval documents on federal Web sites.

Senate bill supporters think the most beneficial changes in the long term are those aimed at strengthening the acquisition workforce. Many agency contract offices are thinly staffed, and about half of the most experienced hands -- those with more than 15 years of service -- will become eligible to retire in the next four years.

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