Procurement reform: The debate continues

Procurement industry lobbyist Steve Kelman recently criticized government outsourcing management in two Federal Computer Week columns [April 15 and 22]. But the government purchase card scandal would not be happening at all if basic taxpayer protections had been put into place when the program started. Unfortunately, more such scandals are emerging, and the much-promised benefits of acquisition reform have yet to materialize.

These reforms were supposed to increase competition. However, an Associated Press investigation recently confirmed that "the government bought more than half of its products and services last year without bidding or with practices that auditors say do not fully shop the marketplace." No bids were solicited at all on 34 percent of government purchases, and one-bid contracts and other noncompetitive purchases constituted another 19 percent, according to AP.

Competition in government contracting has long been recognized as the best means to keep prices down and quality up. With less competition these days, government watchdogs such as the General Accounting Office have documented an emerging epidemic of rip-offs by defense contractors on spare-parts buys. But such reports are just a snapshot of what has truly gone on. Today, agencies that are profit centers because they recover taxpayer dollars from contractors are being downsized — hardly a smart business practice.

Former presidents Reagan and Bush understood the importance of fighting waste, fraud and abuse. They opened the doors of the Defense Department inspector general, who put defense contractors on notice for the first time that their rip-offs would be investigated. Other reforms included the Competition in Contracting Act, the Procurement Integrity Statute and strengthening the Truth in Negotiations Act. Republicans have much to be proud of — those efforts ended one of our nation's most embarrassing moments in the 1980s as defense contractors gorged on government pork.

Political rhetoric notwithstanding, the Clinton administration unraveled and weakened many of the best fraud-fighting statutes and adopted a chummy relationship with big business. As a result, today our government views itself as a friend and promoter of big business rather than its top customer.

Lobbyists are seeking to unravel the Reagan and Bush legacy further. But the verdict is still out on 1990s acquisition reforms, and the evidence so far suggests that they failed to deliver. This is hardly a moment for politicians to agree to the Services Acquisition Reform Act (SARA) — recently proposed by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) — which would intensify the acquisition reform agenda.

SARA is nothing short of a goody bag for contractors. It would expand share-in-savings contracts, which could likely become an unchecked raid on the U.S. Treasury. It would also allow for the artificial creation of companies that are given a free pass to avoid taxpayer protection provisions. For these and many other reasons, SARA should be opposed.

Brian is executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.

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