Democratic win signals changes for federal IT

Workforce and policy issues are also now in flux.

When the reshaped Congress convenes Jan. 3, 2007, Democrats, who gained control in last week’s elections, will chair committees and have the majority in party-line votes. Democratic leaders have promised to conduct more vigorous oversight of procurement, contracting, the war in Iraq and other matters than their Republican colleagues had done.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is expected to become chairman of the powerful Government Reform Committee, where he currently serves as ranking member. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the current chairman, has been a leading proponent of procurement reforms such as the Services Acquisition Reform Act and the Acquisition System Improvement Act. With Waxman as chairman, some observers fear a more rigid approach than Davis has taken.

In September, Waxman and others introduced legislation that would have limited noncompetitive contracts awarded for emergency needs to eight months and allowed companies to subcontract no more than 65 percent of the work on contracts.

Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, worries that such proposals are now more likely to pass.

“There’s no question that Mr. Waxman wants to have a lot of hearings and a lot of legislation he wants to go forward with that we think is punitive,” Soloway said. “There are things in the system we have to improve on. But the system does work very well, and actual fraud and abuse are very rare.”

Additional oversight is good, said Jim Williams, commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service. However, it should focus on systemic problems, not isolated cases, he said.

“Too many times you have a reaction to a single anecdote,” he said. “You know, one kid in the class does something wrong, so you punish the whole school.”

Market research firm Input expects to see an increase in the congressional review of rules for lobbying and government affairs, the perceived influence over contract awards and the performance of contracts within the Defense and Homeland Security departments, said James Krouse, Input’s director of market analysis.

“While much of the expected congressional oversight may be somewhat distracting within the technology contracting environment, it is unlikely that any significant budget cuts will be made across agencies,” he said.

The change in leadership is an opportunity to re-examine competitive sourcing, a provision of the President’s Management Agenda that requires agencies to open some of the work employees do to competition from the private sector. Advocates of the practice, which is governed under Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76, say it forces agency employees to do their jobs more efficiently or risk being displaced, providing savings for taxpayers either way.

The Democratic takeover could mean the end of the practice, at least for now, said Renee Courtland, a former Office of Federal Procurement Policy official and now a senior associate at Dutko Government Markets.

Even though the circular and the initiative are under the executive branch, “competitive sourcing was never popular on the Hill, even under a Republican Congress,” she said. “During the final two years of a weakened administration, I expect that, for the first time, the cart may be leading the horse.”

Labor unions representing federal workers argue that the Bush administration is trying to outsource government work. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the shift in power is an opportunity to re-examine the practice of competitive sourcing and other administration goals.

“The midterm vote is a clear mandate for the government to do a much better job of taking care of taxpayers’ money,” she said. “One vital way to do that is to improve oversight of government contractors and to keep inherently government work — like collecting taxes — in the hands of federal employees.”

Contractors focus on lame-duck appropriations

As Democrats prepare to take control of Congress in January 2007, federal contractors are biting their nails hoping a lame-duck session that begins this week produces additional appropriations bills. Congress passed only a few before it adjourned for midterm elections.

Government contractors want to see as many appropriations bills passed as possible because the continuing resolutions that will fund agencies in the absence of appropriations won’t pay for new projects, said Olga Grkavac, an executive vice president at the Information Technology Association of America.

Contractors are also concerned about how shifting leadership on congressional committees could affect their businesses, Grkavac said. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), left, will take the reins of the Government Reform Committee from Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), but it isn’t yet known who else will be on the committee as Democratic leaders make assignments, new House members join the body, and defeated incumbents leave.

“I think Mr. Waxman’s approach will be a lot different than Mr. Davis’,” said Scott Hommer, co-chairman of the Government Contractor Services Group at Venable. “We’re going to see more public scrutiny of actions by the executive branch in government contracting. I’ve got to believe this isn’t going to bode well for some of those companies whose names have become household words.”

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