Legislating by sound bite

Stan Soloway

In recent weeks, Congress has taken action on significant acquisition policy issues based solely on a sound-bite-quality debate. That's unfortunate, since it is widely acknowledged that acquisition is a critical, core function of government. One would assume that acquisition-related issues would merit serious thought and debate. But as these cases illustrate, that's often not the case.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) pushed through the House of Representatives an amendment to the Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act of 2005 that prohibits any federal agency from using Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76.

Van Hollen argued that since no one, particularly the federal employee unions, is happy with the revisions made to the circular two years ago, it should go back to the drawing board.

As Van Hollen knows, few objective observers find the old, discredited version of the circular preferable to the revision. He also knows that more than 90 percent of the work studied under the revised circular has stayed in-house, thus disproving the federal employee union claim of bias in the process. But there was no real opportunity to fully air or discuss these important facts, and his amendment passed easily.

Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) authored a successful amendment to that same bill that would prohibit the Federal Aviation Administration from going forward with a contract for its Automated Flight Services Stations program. Sanders and his allies argued that air-traffic control and the safety of our skies are too important to be turned over to the lowest bidder.

The Automated Flight Services Stations program actually has nothing to do with air-traffic control. It provides weather and other information to private pilots. And the contract did not go to the lowest bidder. However, it did go to the highest-rated technical proposal -- a detail one would think would matter most.

What's even more outrageous is that Congress routinely has criticized FAA about its technology capabilities. In this case, FAA held a competition to improve its technology in one area and received bids from five major teams, including a government team partnered with a major technology company. Some members of Congress simply didn't like the answer that resulted.

Sanders' amendment represents a remarkable congressional intrusion into the procurement process, would cost FAA more than $2 billion in lost savings and termination liabilities, and would keep the agency from achieving precisely that which Congress has been badgering it to do. It also could be the death knell for competitive sourcing. Again, those facts were not widely discussed.

Finally, the Senate Appropriations Committee slipped language into the fiscal 2006 Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriations Bill to sharply limit participation of for-profit companies in U.S. Agency for International Development's Democracy and Governance programs.

This would require USAID to rely extensively on nongovernmental organizations for this work. The bill's report disingenuously rationalizes the provision by expressing congressional concern about the "cost effectiveness" of using contractors.

Nongovernmental organizations probably are not the answer to concerns about accountability or cost effectiveness. They rarely compete for their grants, are subject to far less accountability than companies working under a binding contract, and operate with relative impunity well outside of USAID's direct control. Because the amendment was slipped quietly into the bill, such relevant facts were never discussed.

Issues this important merit substantive hearings and real debate. They should not be disposed of in a fact-free vacuum. This problem is nothing new, but it should be a real concern for all who are serious about keeping politics out of the procurement process and are committed to improving government management, performance and accountability.

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council. His e-mail is soloway@pscouncil.org.

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