Buy Lines: Don't let politics drive acquisition reform

Stan Soloway

Much of the buzz in the government acquisition community is about sections 803 and 815 of the Senate's version of the fiscal 2005 Defense Authorization Act. These sections would restrict the Defense Department's access to a wide range of nondefense multiple-award contracts.

Some in the Senate feel that the Defense Department pays excessive fees to use these contracts and, in so doing, displays a lack of acquisition discipline. The process does have room for greater discipline and improvement, but the real issue is not the size of the fees, but the services the Defense Department gets in return.

For example, the fees sometimes include complete acquisition support for complex procurements, from issuing requests for proposals to full contract administration. In these cases, even high fees could be justified, as replicating that capability could cost many times more.

But there have been no analyses of the potential financial and mission costs of the legislation; thus, we face the prospect of imposing new restrictions without first assessing the myriad impacts. That does not seem the wisest way to make policy and could lead to higher costs and real mission impacts.

As sections 803 and 815 emerged, so did questions about the scope of the Interior Department's contract the Army used to procure intelligence-related services. This is not a minor issue; contract scope exists for a reason. If a violation such as this occurs, it should be dealt with in a manner consistent with the severity of the infraction.

However, this kind of violation does not merit rash legislative redress, or even the remotest discussion of the government procurement equivalent of the death penalty ? contractor suspension or debarment. There are numerous other remedies that are more appropriate.

Nonetheless, in this highly politicized environment, the alleged violation is fueling the legislation, while suspension and debarment are being blithely tossed about as a possible sanction to be imposed on the contractors.

Despite this, it is important to unlink the nature of the requirement from the acquisition process used to procure it. It is fair to discuss whether the government should contract for some of the services involved. But the requirement determination is and must be kept separate from the acquisition process used to fulfill it.

It is important to consider the circumstances involved. Determining a contract's scope is an inherently governmental function and the contracting officer's responsibility. In this case, the contracting officer indicated that he believed the acquisition was the right thing to do under the circumstances.

The procurement was in response to an urgent requirement from combatant commanders in an active war zone, and the contracting officer's primary goal was to respond quickly and effectively.

Pillorying people or companies for doing their best in such circumstances, even if administrative mistakes are made, sends the wrong message.

Finally, there is not one scintilla of evidence of intent on anyone's part to defraud the government. Yet this case is being treated as a scandal rather than a well-intentioned mistake. Such an imbalance serves no fair purpose.

The concerns underpinning sections 803 and 815 may be meritorious, but the legislation lacks the analytical basis that should underpin major policy changes. Similarly, the increasing politicization of virtually everything to do with Iraq is leading to assumptions and proposed sanctions that are far out of alignment with the facts or the nature of the alleged transgressions.

That's why now, more than ever, we need to restore reason to the discussion.

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council; he previously served as deputy undersecretary of defense. His e-mail is

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