Politics changes A-76 landscape

Congress uses its power to intercede in public/private job competitions

Lawmakers forced the Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey to change its criteria for an A-76 jobs competition to give federal employees a better chance at winning and keeping their jobs. Because lawmakers intervened, USGS postponed closing the Mid-Continent Mapping Center in Rolla, Mo., which employs 130 people.

Industry advocates opposed to Congress’ intervention say that it could further weaken the Bush administration’s already troubled competitive-sourcing program. But federal employee union leaders insist that greater congressional involvement is necessary to ensure that agencies treat federal employees fairly in the competitions.

USGS had been conducting a competition under the Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-76 rules to determine whether federal or private-sector employees would operate a consolidated mapping center in Lakewood, Colo., near Denver.

The agency altered its plans after the Senate included a measure in the fiscal 2007 Interior appropriations bill calling for funding to allow the Rolla and Lakewood sites to compete fairly in the bidding process.

Sens. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) objected to the process that USGS used in choosing Colorado as the new center’s location. USGS officials responded by suspending the jobs competition last fall.

At Congress’ request, Earl Devaney, Interior’s inspector general, began an investigation into how USGS chose the Colorado site. In February, Devaney reported that he had found no evidence of misconduct.

“We knew from the get-go that Department of Interior had an agenda with a predetermined outcome,” Talent said. “The mapping center in Rolla met all of the criteria.”

During the wrangling, companies that might have been interested in offering bids to perform the mapping jobs — either in Colorado or Missouri — were left hanging. Some industry officials say such uncertainty is a hindrance to A-76 competitions.

“It simply adds more confusion to the process and, perhaps most importantly, limits the management flexibility the agency should have,” said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council.

The USGS case is one of several recent instances in which lawmakers have tried to intervene in an A-76 competition before an award. For example, House members backed an amendment to prohibit the Army Corps of Engineers from competitively sourcing work associated with locks and dams. That amendment is attached to the House fiscal 2007 Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which passed the House.

Lawmakers also have appealed A-76 decisions after agencies awarded contracts, including an effort by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to stop the Defense Department from outsourcing base operations support services at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District of Columbia.

John Threlkeld, a lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees, said federal employees don’t have the same right to appeal contracting decisions that companies do. Congressional action can sometimes serve as a substitute, he said.

Lawmakers, feds become A-76 allies

Competitive sourcing, which the Office of Management and Budget authorizes in Circular A-76, lets federal agencies outsource certain federal employee jobs through a bidding process known as competitive sourcing.

However, some lawmakers share the belief of most federal employees that the Bush administration uses competitive sourcing to give government money to contractors and eliminate federal employees’ jobs. As proof, they point to the U.S. Geological Survey’s plan to shutter a mapping center in Rolla, Mo., so that it can consolidate all mapping operations in Lakewood, Colo., and open management of the center to private-sector competition.

Taking Rolla out of the running in the midst of an A-76 jobs competition would have strengthened the case for private contractors, said Jeffrey Connor, a spokesman for Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) “Rolla is going to win in any comparison of cost-effectiveness,” he said. “We have to continue to be a watchdog to make sure that within the A-76 competition, Rolla is treated fairly.”

— Aliya Sternstein

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