Rep. Herbert E. Harris (D-Va.) took time out yesterday from his campaign against federal contracting abuses to conduct a short course for several hundred of his constituents. The subject: how to get a bigger slice of the $100 billion in contracts awarded annually by the federal government.
Harris and his Northern Virginia colleague, Rep. Joseph L. Fisher (D-Va.), sponsored a day-long conference at a hotel at Tysons Corner, the home ground of the so-called Beltway Bandits -- private firms that specialize in government work.
The irony did not go unnoticed. One man stood at the doorway of the Westpark Hotel ballroom and distributed copies of an editorial from a Richmond newspaper that said legislation proposed by Harris, which the congressman said is designed to crack down on contracting abuses, "aptly might be called 'the bureaucracy protection act.'"
"He's got guts," said one man of Harris, after listening to the 8th District congressman welcome the 550 private entrepreneurs to the federal small business contracting conference.
Harris took note of the criticism of his legislation, H.R. 4717, saying it was the victim of "misinformation." Harris said his bill would require federal agencies to perform a cost-benefit study before awarding contracts to outside firms. If the work could be done for less money within the agency, it should be, Harris said.
Many government agencies are handing out contracts to get around a personnel order that has frozen the federal work force at 2.1 million. Harris contended there is no savings to taxpayers if, by holding down the number of federal workers, the costs go up because of outside contracts.
The editorial, from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, said Harris' legislation "would tend to increase the size of the federal bureaucracy by imposing upon governmental agencies strong disincentive against issuing service contracts to private firms."
The newspaper suggested that Harris' bill "probably appeals to a sizable faction in his Northern Virginia district, which has a heavy concentration of federal employes."
But as the size of yesterday's turnout showed, Harris also represents, as he often points out, many people who work for the private firms that get those contracts.
In what might be construed as a swipe at Harris, 10th District Congressman Fisher cautioned that "in correcting consulting abuses, we should not lose sight of the many benefits of private contractors and consultants."
Fisher won applause for his proposal to reform the federal contracting process: he wants to require the government "to pay interest to contractors when it delays in paying its bills."
After the opening remarks, the conferees scattered throughout the hotel to meet informally with procurement officiers from 25 federal agencies and representatives of an equal number of prime contractors, from whom many of the small firms might get subcontracts.
Anthony J. Steinhauser, federal civilian agency coordinator for the Commerce Department, told the participants "it won't take you months and cost you thousands of dollars to track down the officials here today."
Among the federal procurement officers on hand were representatives of eight military agencies. Steinhauser told the conferees that the Defense Department "considers this conference a marketplace." For the huge military establishment to "get the most defense for the dollar, it must expand its base" to include new and innovative contractors, he said.
Steinhauser said that 70 percent of the federal contracts awarded this year will come from the Pentagon. Of the $58.5 billion DOD will contract with U.S. firms, $21.3 billion, or 36 percent, will go to small firms, either as prime or subcontractors, Steinhauser said.
Speical attention was devoted to opportunities for small firms to get into the export business.
Among the wide range of would-be government contractors who paid $15 per person to attend yesterday's conference were those representing accountants, architects, banks, carpet shops, computer systems, couriers, court reporters, decorators, environmentalists, hotels, gardeners and landscapers, heating and air conditioning firms, insurance brokers, movers, office equipment suppliers, photographers, realtors, rental cars, rental furniture, travel agents, and local chambers of commerce and development agencies.
Steinhauser said 26 such conferences are scheduled this year [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] the country. Each one [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] by a member of Congress. Rep- [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] Michael D. Barnes (D- [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] host at one in Rockville on [WORD ILLEGIBLE]. CAPTION: Picture, Brochures from federal agencies, were available at Tysons Corner conference for businessmen seeking part of the $100 billion federal contracting pie. By Dan Sherbo for The Washington Post