Editorial: Public/private competition revisited

After staking out a hard line against the government awarding contracts to itself, cooler heads seem to be prevailing on Capitol Hill. The Senate and the House are crafting bills that would make it easier for the private sector to compete with the government on contracts, without stripping the government of its many responsibilities.

The hot debate over public/private competition exploded on the Washington scene last year when the Federal Aviation Administration awarded a $250 million data processing services contract to the Agriculture Department. The Office of Management and Budget allows such awards when they are based on price, a policy that obviously saves the taxpayers money. But vendors argue that the government has an unfair competitive advantage because agencies do not have to account for overhead costs, pay taxes or please shareholders with profits.

The FAA award revived interest in the Freedom From Government Competition Act, which would have required government to outsource all functions that were deemed not to be a core government responsibility. Government workers, understandably, found the bill offensive. The new bills Congress is crafting reportedly step back from the radical FGCA.

Although few details of the bills' language are known, we welcome Congress revisiting this difficult and all too important issue.

Any compromise that would retain the government's right to compete for contracts—- without impeding its ability to perform its core mission—- while keeping the competition as fair as possible is a worthy cause.

After all, the primary goal here is to give taxpayers the best service at the lowest cost. And if that means a government agency providing the service, so be it.

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