A serious mistake

The Senate will make a serious mistake — with all the best intentions — if it goes through with a proposal to clamp down on Defense Department procurement practices.

The plan, part of the 2002 Defense authorization bill, which is expected to be delivered to the floor for a vote in the days ahead, essentially rolls back nearly a decade of work to simplify procurement regulations.

Of particular concern is a provision, known as Section 803, that would require contracting officers using the General Services Administration schedules to seek bids from all eligible GSA contractors on task orders of $50,000 or more. Another, Section 801, would require that task orders issued through governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs) be approved by a newly created DOD GWAC czar.

The Senate wants to force DOD contract shops to put more work out for bids, rather than award task orders to the vendors of their choice. Indeed, sole-sourcing continues to be a problem, based on a new report from DOD's inspector general. Sole-sourcing, you might say, is an unintended consequence of procurement reform. No one condones it. One reason the White House and Congress sought to simplify government regulations during the 1990s was to encourage more competition, knowing it would drive down prices and improve services. And it did.

The stripped-down regulations also gave contracting officers more autonomy, making it possible to shorten the procurement process and get the latest technology into the field quickly. Unfortunately, this also opened the door for quick-and-easy procurements that deserve more deliberation.

But Senate leaders apparently have forgotten the days when acquisitions would take so long to complete that the technology would be outdated by the time it was delivered. During the past five years, procurement reform has helped transform government from a technology backwater to a technology frontier.

The best solution is diligence. The IGs, the General Accounting Office and the White House all must do their parts to ensure that agency contracting officers understand and adhere to existing rules on competition. It's not a pretty solution, but given the alternative — a return to the plodding, overly bureaucratic procurement days of yesteryear — it's not too high a price to pay.

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