New bills focus on making contractors accountable

Senate committee to mark up accountability legislation

Contractors and Federal Spending Accountability Act

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are exploring measures to halt poor contracting practices and set new boundaries to solve what they say are systemic problems.

Members of Congress hope to use legislation to quell what they see as an excessive number of sole-source contracts, increase oversight of the acquisition process and create a central database to track contractor performance.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will likely be the first out of the chute when it marks up the Accountability in Government Contracting Act of 2007, introduced in February by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee’s ranking member. The committee expects to mark up the bill before the August recess.

The act would set specific time limits for noncompetitive contracts and introduce other restrictions. For example, it would put a 150-day limit on noncompetitive contracts awarded under special circumstances, such as those related to post-hurricane recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast. After that, the legislation would require the agency to hold a competition for a follow-on contract.

Experts from government and industry say the bills would set too many thresholds and time limits instead of treating the system’s root problems.

Comptroller General David Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office, told the committee July 17 that 150 days might be unrealistic in some situations.
“It’s not just the issue of making sure the follow-on [contracts] are competitive…[or] having some limitation on the initial award,” he said. “It’s also making sure that these departments and agencies are doing appropriate planning.”

Marcia Madsen, chairwoman of the Services Acquisition Reform Act panel and a partner at the law firm Mayer Brown Rowe and Maw, said that although imposing such a strict contract period might not be the answer, a time limit could be an incentive for agencies to delineate contracting details earlier in the process.

Meanwhile, House members are focusing on how agencies determine the suitability of potential vendors. Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Government Management, Organization and Procurement Subcommittee, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) co-sponsored a bill to bolster contractor oversight and create a centralized database that tracks companies’ performance. They introduced the Contractors and Federal Spending Accountability Act of 2007 July 12.

“Most importantly, contractors are not always held responsible for their actions,” said Gregory Friedman, the Energy Department’s inspector general, at a July 18 hearing about why vendors with poor track records keep winning contracts.

Richard Skinner, the Homeland Security Department’s IG, added that agencies are inconsistent about entering information into past-performance systems.

“We found nothing in these systems from across the government saying that they ever had a problem with these contractors, and we in fact knew that there were problems,” Skinner said.

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