Giving states access

By almost any measure, the General Services Administration Federal Supply Service's (FSS) schedule program is one of the most successful in government procurement. The U.S. government effectively aggregates millions of separate purchases of common commercial items to obtain huge discounts, saving millions of dollars each year.

As part of the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994, Congress authorized expanding the FSS schedule program to allow "cooperative purchasing" by state and local governments as well as federal agencies. Many hailed the expansion as a way to save taxpayer money by allowing state and local governments to obtain discounts on commercial items that they could not achieve on their own because of the small volumes they buy.

A chorus of opposition arose, however, even before the plan could be implemented. It is not surprising that most of it came from manufacturers and vendors anticipating that declining profits would be the flip side of savings expected by state and local governments. Siding with these industry representatives and against the taxpayers, Congress first postponed and later eliminated the cooperative purchasing authorization.

Unknown to many people, though, Congress had also authorized a completely separate cooperative purchasing program as part of the 1994 Defense Authorization Act. This separate authority was not curtailed. Under that statute, Congress authorized the Defense Department, in coordination with GSA, to "produce and maintain a catalog of law enforcement equipment suitable for counter-drug activities for purchase by states and units of local government."

Pursuant to this authority, GSA has authorized state and local governments to participate in much of the FSS schedule program, including FSS Schedule 70, which covers general-purpose commercial information technology equipment, software and services, and other schedules that offer such items as training and vehicles. The only limitation is that the items must be — as the statute says — "suitable for counter-drug activities."

According to a General Accounting Office study, states and local governments are spending millions of dollars a year through this program while achieving significant savings on purchases. Any objective observer would call the program a success.

However, by restricting the program to counter-drug activities, Congress has severely hampered the programs' potential effectiveness. It is clearly time for Congress to revisit the cooperative purchasing issue. At a minimum, the program should be expanded to allow state and local participation in the FSS schedule program for all law enforcement purposes. Or better yet, Congress should authorize state and local participation for all governmental purposes.

Expanding the program will save taxpayers money. Moreover, it will help state and local governments deliver services to citizens more efficiently and effectively. It is the right thing to do and now is the right time to do it.

Peckinpaugh is corporate counsel for DynCorp in Reston, Va. This column represents his personal views.

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