Senate moves on bill to restrict agencies from hiring agencies

The controversy over the Federal Aviation Administration's award of a $250 million data processing contract to the Agriculture Department is breathing new life into efforts in the Senate to push forward legislation that would bar the government from engaging in any functions that can be effectively provided by the private sector.

The Freedom From Government Competition Act introduced last year in a slightly different form has remained largely out of the spotlight this year. Thanks to the FAA's award of its Integrated Computing Environment-Mainframe and Networking (ICEMAN) outsourcing contract to the USDA members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management Restructuring and the District of Columbia said they will hold a hearing on the bill this week.

Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) sponsor of the Freedom From Government Competition Act brought the issue to the Senate floor last week in a speech urging his colleagues to support his efforts to pass the legislation. Thomas and Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) last month wrote to President Clinton outlining their concerns about ICEMAN.

On the Senate floor last week Thomas suggested that the FAA may have skirted procurement rules when it awarded ICEMAN to the USDA. "The current A-76 process which is the system that is supposed to be used to decide if a function can be done more cost effectively in the private sector may not even have been used by the FAA before awarding the contract to the Department of Agriculture " he said. "And when A-76 is used it does not provide a level playing field for comparing government and the private sector.

"The GAO has strongly criticized the Department of Agriculture's management of its current information technology " Thomas added. "We shouldn't be giving them more work when they can't handle their current assignments."

Thomas said his legislation would address these issues by allowing "a best-value comparison between government and private enterprise based on fair accounting systems based on qualifications based on past performance." The legislation calls on agencies to identify functions that are not "inherently governmental" and requires them to outsource those activities to private companies.

Meanwhile the FAA last week lifted its self-imposed suspension of the award following a review performed in conjunction with the Office of Management and Budget. Work will begin on the contract following a 20-day protest period.

Asked about the ICEMAN contract during a speech to vendors on June 10 OMB Director Franklin Raines said the administration does not believe that "everything commercial is always going to be contracted out " if the government can do it less expensively.

Raines who made his remarks at an industry-sponsored conference about outsourcing said vendors would not award contracts to private companies when they could perform the same services better in-house. "Anything you would not say to a private customer you should not say to the government " he said adding that agencies are concerned about "what is in the interest of the taxpayer not what is in the interest of the supplier."

Ron Utt staff director of the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee planning this week's hearing said there is widespread dissatisfaction with the FAA's actions within Congress and even in some quarters within the Clinton administration. He said he hopes the hearing will bring the issue out into the open.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is an outspoken supporter of outsourcing and privatization and has criticized government efforts to internally provide services it could buy from the private sector.

- Elana Varon contributed to this article.

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