Crunch time for acquisition portal in defense bill

Reconciliation of the massive defense bill could put new off-the-shelf acquisition sources into the federal acquisition mix, but experts worry about the details.

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As Congress moves to reconcile two versions of the National Defense Authorization Act in the coming weeks, one of the provisions legislators will be considering could significantly alter how federal agencies might buy commercial off the shelf items -- eventually including IT products.

If approved, the measure would task the General Services Administration to develop online e-commerce portals that the Defense Department and federal agencies could use to buy basic commercial products.

Existing companies that specialize in office supplies as well as larger e-commerce platforms could create special government-focused marketplaces that buyers could use to obtain basic items.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, first proposed the measure as the Defense Acquisition Streamlining and Transparency Act in May. It passed with some modifications in the House NDAA.

The measure has no counterpart in the $700 billion Senate bill that passed Sept. 18.

Although the language of the House's Section 801 NDAA "Amazon for government" provision addresses the Defense Department, it makes clear it would apply to all federal agencies.

They may have their jobs cut out for them defining the e-commerce provisions, said observers.

"We support the concept," said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president, Public Sector at the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector said in an interview with FCW. "We have questions on how it's constructed."

Those questions circle primarily around current federal vendor compliance rules for efforts such as Buy American, small business and disability buying programs, he said. "Congress needs to determine if the [federal acquisition regulation] doesn't apply to a set of products and say it" in clear language, Hodgkins said.

Additionally, federal vendors are also concerned about the clarity of whether the online portals being proposed would have to carry their products. That detail, said Hodgkins, could potentially affect other federal IT contracts such as the GSA's Schedule 70 and NASA's SEWP governmentwide acquisition contract, since it would change important parameters for vendors, allowing them to sell through the portals to federal customers without federal compliance.

One big question that remains to be settled is whether the objective is to introduce another option into the existing procurement mix, or engage in wide reforms, said Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners.

"I would love to see a commercial e-commerce platform take over and modernize GSA Advantage, for example," Allen said. "All that said, Congress needs to figure out what it wants -- a 'preferred' vehicle that throws out a host of heretofore important acquisition objectives, or broad-spread reform that enables DOD and other agencies to more easily buy commercial items regardless of acquisition method."

If passed with the appropriate regulatory and process details, federal agencies would probably begin using the commercial portals for simple commoditized things such as pencils, paper, and pallets of bottled drinking water. However, as they get used to it, agencies could expand to commodity IT items, such as laptops, printers and computer keyboards.

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