White House Rules Spark Union, Vendor Lobbying

White House Rules Spark Union, Vendor Lobbying

By Neil Munro
Senior Writer

Government officials are readying regulations that would toughen enforcement of labor, environmental, criminal and tax laws as part of a long-standing White House pledge to promote labor's role in federal contracting.

If enforced, the new rules would curb contract awards to federal contractors, including information technology companies, that violate a broad range of federal laws and regulations, including workplace safety rules and criminal laws.

Vice President Al Gore promised new regulations to boost compliance with labor laws by federal contractors at an annual meeting of the AFL-CIO leadership in February 1997. White House officials familiar with the draft regulations declined to say when they would be completed.

"The discussion is ongoing, the research is ongoing. ... It just takes time," said Karen Tramontano, a White House counsel who is working on the regulations. Tramontano works in the office of John Podesta, the White House's deputy chief of staff for domestic affairs.

CTIA photo

Bruce Hahn, lobbyist for the Computing Technology Industry Association

The regulations would be more stringent than existing rules and thus would encourage contract officers to disqualify law-breaking companies from winning federal contracts, said Bruce Hahn, a Washington-based lobbyist for the Computing Technology Industry Association, which includes many companies that build, distribute and install computer technology. This could "open a wedge to the [union] organization of our industry," said Hahn.

"We expect to be [pleased with the regulations] because we have no indication that the White House is backtracking," said Laurence Gold, an associate general counsel at the Washington-based AFL-CIO coalition of unions.

Under Section 9.4 of the Federal Acquisition Regulations, contract officers have broad authority to disbar companies engaged in a variety of wrongdoing, said David Nadler, an attorney at the Washington-based firm of Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky. While this section is rarely enforced, "the new regulations are designed to put more teeth into what is there and to encourage contract officers to be more aggressive in looking at these kinds of violations," he said.

White House officials are considering expansion of the regulations to promote enforcement of civil rights and state laws, said Tramontano. This expansion may result in regulations that penalize contractors when they are found to violate rules by the courts and oversight agencies, including the National Labor Relations Board, as well as the federal courts, which oversee disputes over taxes, criminal prosecutions and environmental laws.

Information technology officials and congressional observers say they are worried about the scope and clarity of any such regulations.

Both Hahn and Hal Coxson, director of an industry-financed coalition dubbed the National Alliance Against Blacklisting, said their efforts to talk with White House officials about the regulations have been rebuffed by White House officials. The coalition represents more than 750 companies and numerous associations.

"They don't want our input," charged Coxson, a partner at the Washington-based law firm of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. Coxson declined to identify any of the companies in the alliance, which includes Hahn's CTIA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In response to Coxson's charge, Tramontano said White House officials have discussed the issue with industry executives.

But "all we've heard are the sketchiest details" about the new regulations, complained Hahn.

That hasn't stopped Coxson's coalition from warning companies about the new proposals, which they say could lead to the politicization of federal contracting, he said.

Companies that are entangled with disputes with regulatory agencies or that get involved in disputes with unions over issues such as union organizing or worker safety, could find their contracts jeopardized by agencies sympathetic to the unions, he warned.

"We have no intentions of politicizing contracting whatsoever," said Tramontano.

To defeat the draft regulations, Coxson said his group is planning a grassroots lobbying campaign to be implemented by company executives. With advice and information from the coalition, the executives would be expected to contact White House officials, and their senators and representatives, to protest the rules, he said.

Industry executives may be able to win enough Republican support in Congress to deter the administration from trying to implement the regulations, he said. For example, Republican leaders threatened early this year to reject President Bill Clinton's nominee to head the Department of Labor, Alexis Herman, unless Clinton withdrew a draft regulation, dubbed the Project Labor Agreement. If implemented, the regulation would have forced the managers of all federally funded construction projects to negotiate wide-ranging agreements with construction unions. Clinton eventually withdrew the proposed regulation and Congress approved his nominee.

To build political support for the new regulations, union officials have collected data about mistreatment of workers by federal contractors, according to Ron Blackwell, chief of the corporate affairs office of the Washington-based AFL-CIO.

The union's role is critical, said industry officials, because Gore wants their support in the race to head the Democratic Party for the 2000 presidential election. In this race, Gore is competing against Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., the leading Democrat in the House of Representatives, who is also seeking the union's support.

If Congress passes a law striking down the regulation, Clinton may veto the law. This would allow the regulation to be implemented, unless the Senate and House voted by a two-thirds majority to reject Clinton's veto. If Congress cannot override any veto, industry officials could ask the courts to reject the regulation, Coxson said.

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