Acquisition reform tops list of priorities
- By Elana Varon
- Mar 03, 1996
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), like the legendary former Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, has learned well the lesson that all politics are local. This truism has caused Davis to embrace causes that most of his colleagues, whatever their party, view as strictly inside-the-Beltway concerns.~~Davis' district includes much of Fairfax County, where information technology companies with federal contracts dominate the local economy. Many of his constituents, whether employees of these firms or government workers themselves, depend somehow on the federal procurement system to earn their living.~~So in his first term in Congress, Davis, 47, has decided to become one of the rare House experts on acquisition reform. "It's not something that will get you elected," he said, even in Northern Virginia. "But I'm going to follow it because it's important."~~Davis wants to establish a federal procurement process that his constituents can ignore. "If you have a system that operates efficiently," taxpayers will have confidence that their money is not being wasted, Davis explained.~~During last year's debate over the Federal Acquisition Reform Act, Davis served as a top lieutenant to Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.), making speeches and lobbying colleagues to support the controversial bill. When Clinger retires at the end of his current term, congressional observers say Davis, who currently chairs a subcommittee working to reinvent the District of Columbia's government, could well become the House Republican federal procurement point man.~~That would be a logical next step in his career, Davis agreed, as he munched chocolate candy and sipped Diet Coke in his suburban Herndon, Va., district office. If he is re-elected in November, it would be logical to "move up on the team," he said.~~Corporate Background in Procurement~~To some extent, Davis' interest in procurement policy comes naturally. Before he came to Congress, he spent 15 years as a corporate lawyer with federal IT contractors PRC Inc. and Advanced Technology, which merged with PRC in 1991.~~During his career, Davis encountered the practical—and often impractical—effects of the federal procurement labyrinth. So when the Government Reform and Oversight Committee began holding hearings on acquisition reform, Davis did not skip them, like many of his colleagues did. Instead, he listened, asked questions and learned more. "I like it now, and I understand it well enough," he said.~~Davis said he advocates no specific prescriptions for the system, but he believes vendors and agencies should set the agenda for future reform. As the new law is applied, he continued, Congress should be willing to tinker with it and correct inevitable misinterpretations.~~"My goal is to listen to the different constituent groups and see how it's working and not waste time on feel-good legislative enactments," he said.~~Davis served for 15 years on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, the last three as chairman. Local government, he observed, has almost no consistent buying rules—making the procurement process "a little bit [like] the Wild West" but also allowing officials to get what they need when they need it.~~Davis conceded that the Hill is part of the problem, saying Congress interferes too much in agency purchasing decisions. "Our job ought to be to review these contracts on the merits," he said, rather than earmarking funds for favorite projects or steering contracts to constituents.~~Agency officials often complain that it is hard for them to plan, buy and manage information systems effectively when they do not know how much money Congress will give them from year to year. Davis agrees that agencies should have more flexibility to allocate their funds, in part to protect contractors from losing money.~~A life-long Republican, Davis broke with his party during the three-week government shutdown this winter. Contractors, he argued, lose even under continuing resolutions because those bills do not specify that vendors should continue to be paid.~~"The first instinct is to protect people," Davis said. "Information technology always suffers."~~Davis warned that the GOP and White House balanced budget proposals rely too heavily on cuts in discretionary spending—the accounts that most agencies use to fund the computer systems they will need to cope with downsizing. But, he said, suggestions for securing IT allocations, such as establishing capital budgets or providing project funds for multiple years, "right now are not politically viable."~~Davis already knows that most changes come incrementally. He said he is "still learning" about which moves are possible.~~Budgetary concerns may effect changes, Davis believes, because increasingly it is the "bottom line" that matters. As members of both parties like to point out, reforming procurement is critical to balancing the federal budget.~~"Procurement is not perceived as important to many, many people," he concluded. "You've got to make it real for them. They are interested in the end result."