Senators back off call for automatic contractor suspensions

In a new bill on contingency contracting, senators have backed off of earlier demands for automatic suspensions of contractors charged with wrongdoing.

The new version of the Comprehensive Contingency Contracting Reform Act (S. 3286), which was introduced June 12, would require an automatic referral of a contractor to the suspension and debarment official for certain allegations, including criminal charges and accusations of fraud.

The referral would also come if a federal official determines that the contractor failed to pay or refund the government what’s due in connection to a contract with the departments of Defense or State or the U.S. Agency for International Development. That provision applies only to those three agencies.

Federal officials and experts have shied away from automatic suspensions, arguing that it takes too much discretion away from agencies. The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose report was the basis for the legislation, encourages enforcement of the suspension rules, but not compulsion. Former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, Dan Gordon, also said mandatory suspension was a bad idea.

The new bill, introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), strengthens provisions in the original contingency contracting legislation that came out in February. It would elevate oversight responsibility and improve management structures. For one example, DOD, the military branches, State Department, and USAID would have to have at least one suspension and debarment official. That official could not report to or be supervised by either the chief acquisition officer or the inspector general. The previous bill only would require that the official not be in “located or co-located within the acquisition office.”

Senators also tackled the contracting process through more openness and competition along with more accountability measures for contractors. It would require the government to identify how it will pay for overseas military operations.

The new bill “recognizes the necessity to improve government management and accountability in the contracting process that resulted in unacceptable costs, excessive waste, and substandard performance in far too many areas,” said Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), the original co-sponsor of the initial bill.

Senators refined the bill after extensive talks with the contracting community, federal officials and the Armed Services Committee, he said.

With the new bill, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, joined Sens. Webb, McCaskill, Al Franken (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The bill was sent to Lieberman’s committee for further consideration.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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