A firm voice on the Hill

Low-key Ed Towns takes charge of Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Promising to work toward a more “transparent, responsive and efficient” federal government, Rep. Edolphus “Ed” Towns (D-N.Y.) is assuming the chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a time when contractor reform agendas have been eclipsed by headlines about financial bailouts and the ailing economy.

When those trends will change is anyone’s guess, but Towns’ reputation as a low-key legislator rather than an attention-grabber also might keep the committee’s profile less prominent than in the past. In contrast to his outspoken predecessor, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who was a frequent presence on the evening news, Towns is known to fly under the radar.

“There is clearly a difference in style,” said Trey Hodgkins, vice president of federal government programs at the Technology Association of America. “Mr. Waxman did things that called attention to the committee,” he said. “Mr. Towns will be less focused on having the attention.”

“Ed Towns is not a table-pounder, but that is not to say he does not feel strongly and have passion about the issues,” said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council, a group representing service contractors.

Having served on the House panel for 26 years, Towns was next in line for the chairmanship based on seniority. Nonetheless, his election, with support from the Congressional Black Caucus, prompted some mixed feelings and gave rise to news reports that committee insiders were concerned about his allegedly poor attendance at committee hearings, lukewarm support from Waxman and some negative press regarding a federal sting operation in 1982. But none of that had any lasting effect.

Towns, who was chairman of the Government Management, Organization and Procurement Subcommittee in the 110th Congress, held more than two dozen hearings in 2007 and 2008 on a wide variety of topics, including contracting reform, health information technology, the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) and federal identification card technologies.

Such a broad range of hearings suggests that Chairman Towns might continue to have a wide focus for the committee, Chvotkin said. And it’s possible that some acquisition-related issues might be delegated to the procurement subcommittee, Chvotkin and Hodgkins said.

However, one congressional source who asked not to be named said chairman Towns fully intends to focus on procurement reforms and probably will renew his drive to pass legislation he introduced in 2008 to prohibit tax-delinquent federal contractors from continuing to receive contracts.

Other issues that Towns is likely to push during his tenure are FISMA requirement upgrades and more transparency in the federal contractor information databases.

Last year’s successful effort to establish a contractor performance database was initiated by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and was co-sponsored by Towns. The bill authorizes the creation of a federal database on contractor misconduct modeled after a similar Internet database posted by the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

However, the final version of the bill Congress passed stipulates that the database will not be available to the public. “I think Chairman Towns will want to promote the database bill as part of Obama’s transparency agenda,” the congressional source said.

Aside from those specific contracting priorities, some observers say they expect Towns will assume an information-gathering approach to other contracting issues, including those regarding federal information technology.

“Procurement is not [Towns’] background; there was a learning experience there,” Chvotkin said. “But he is known for being open to listening.”

In comparison to former chairman Rep. Tom Davis, (R-Va.), who led the committee from 2003 to 2006 and was warmly embraced by the IT contractor community, neither Waxman nor Towns is known as a techie who is comfortable in the digital age.

Nonetheless, Towns has cultivated good relationships with the IT industry. “He seemed to understand the industry’s concerns and was open to our perspective,” Hodgkins said. “We have had a good relationship.”

Towns, who will be operating under the first Democratic administration in nearly a decade, is likely to look to President Obama to help set priorities for the committee, said Charles Tiefer, professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and former solicitor of the House.

“Ed Towns will be an effective lieutenant for the Obama program,” Tiefer said. “Towns will work to carry out the Obama campaign proposals about saving on government contracts, trying to keep the legislation strong when the Senate predictably waters it down.”

Because of his experience in the Army, social services and public schools, Towns is a strong supporter of public service and is likely to try to protect federal civil servants from excessive outsourcing, Tiefer added.

POGO is expecting Towns to pay more attention to long-term reform efforts, such as FISMA and security clearances, than to oversight.

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