SARA moves to House

Legislation that would streamline how agencies buy services passed the House Government Reform Committee last week, although not before committee members added several measures to increase oversight of the buying process.

The Services Acquisition Reform Act provides for the training of an acquisition workforce within federal agencies and incorporates commercial contracting practices into services acquisition. It also creates the position of chief acquisition officer — a person to be appointed by each agency head whose role is to integrate acquisition with the agency's overall mission.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the bill's primary author, believes the act will make it easier for agencies to buy services from contractors by allowing agencies to use commercial techniques, including performance-based contracts, which are not commonly used in government. Critics say the bill offers too few safeguards against abuse.

SARA's core is a set of provisions that designate certain procurements as commercial item contracts, eligible to use streamlined commercial item procurement procedures.

SARA also defines "commercial entities" as enterprises whose primary customers are outside of the federal government.

The revised bill invokes oversight laws for many acquisitions of more than $15 million. Commercial item contracts generally are exempt from such laws. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) offered the amendment, and Davis added the $15 million threshold.

Critics of the legislation say it removes too many of the checks and balances designed to keep the government's costs lower. "Mr. Davis evidently believes that the goal is speed, that the faster the government can acquire goods and services, the better," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group. "Our belief is that speed needs to be balanced with cost and quality."

Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.) passed an amendment calling for the Office of Management and Budget to review the designation of commercial entities and the performance-based contracting incentives after two years.

Davis also amended the bill to restore a provision that exempts commercial information technology procurements from restrictions on acquiring foreign products. That provision had appeared in Davis' first attempt to pass SARA last year, but was missing from the version he introduced last week.

It's an important measure, said Bruce McLellan, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement. The laws forbid agencies from buying from countries that have not signed certain trade agreements.

"A lot of the products that are now being manufactured by American companies, many of those component parts are coming from China," which is not a signatory to the trade agreements, he said. "The government would not be able to avail itself of those products."

Other Democratic attempts to amend the bill failed. They tried to strike its authorization of share-in-savings contracts, to remove the specification that the chief acquisition officer be a political appointee and to forbid federal trade with American companies that have moved to tax-haven nations.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) failed to enact an amendment that would create a governmentwide database of contractor performance information to provide suspension and debarment officials with a more complete picture. Currently, she said, there is no central repository for information about contractors who are performing poorly but haven't yet been debarred.


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