A bad mix

Politics and procurement policy have never been a good mix. Procurement policies evolve over long stretches of time, from one administration to the next, following the political leanings of Congress or the White House. So House Democrats now find themselves in a precarious position after slamming the Bush administration for failing to reach its goals on small-business contracting.

In a report titled "Federal Agencies: Closed to Small Business," the Democrats on the House Small Business Committee had a field day with the fact that only 22.62 percent of government contract dollars went to small businesses, just short of the governmentwide goal of 23 percent.

A 0.38 percent miss does not seem to form a strong basis for launching an attack on the Bush administration. But the report carries some weight because it echoes a concern in the federal market that the administration's procurement policies do not reflect its avowed support for small businesses.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy, for example, wants to tighten controls on so-called contract bundling, in which a number of related services are rolled into one large deal, making it difficult for small businesses to compete.

At the same time, OFPP is pushing agencies to allow companies to compete for more government work. If OFPP is successful, agencies will gravitate toward larger, more complex deals, rather than manage dozens of smaller contracts.

However, the current administration is building on initiatives started by the Clinton White House, which loosened federal contracting rules and required agencies to begin collecting data on jobs that could be shifted to the private sector.

The House report highlights the long-standing tension between the desire for expediency in federal procurement and the social necessity of supporting small businesses. The fact that tension exists does not mean either goal is misguided. Indeed, it's a tension that cannot be resolved but only managed from one administration to the next.

Both parties should remain vigilant, but they should leave politics out of it.

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