The President’s plan to overhaul and reform the federal contracting system is, backers say, long overdue. Other than that it is hard to applaud or attack since the guidance won’t be out until September 30, the end of this fiscal year.
Many objective people who know what government can and cannot do say we as a nation need to be very careful about what services we turn over to the private sector. The Bush administration is blamed for the heavy emphasis on contracting out (especially related to Defense functions). But contracting out got its big jump start during the Clinton administration when the government eliminated hundreds of thousands of so-called “overhead jobs”, many of which were outsourced.
By some estimates there are currently 6 contract employees working directly for the government for every federal civil servant working directly for the government. Places where contractors were rare a dozen years ago, like the CIA, are now “awash”, as one official said, with the outsiders with special badges.
Old Washington hands say that the contract reform will be easier said than done. “It’s a SOP to the unions, the federal unions,” according to one fed whose job, when he worked on Capitol Hill, was monitoring contractors in his boss’s homestate. He also worked as a lobbyist dealing with federal contracts.
Reform can mean reducing the number of contractors and/or eliminating sole source contracts. They are often necessary in an emergency situation or when there is literally no time, or no other group that can do the job. But they often lead to problems, including cost overruns and failure to produce.
One question is whether all contracts and all systems are on the table and up for reform. A former congressional staffer said there are all kinds of special preference and set aside contracts that are politically sacroscant. Members of Congress from Alaska to Virginia insist on them, he said, and he predicted they would remain untouchable.
A D.C. businessman recalled setting up shop in the 1990s in a leased building on Vermont Avenue. He was, still is, a consultant who works on contract, and does sub-contracting for federal agencies. He said it took him four or five years to get a staff of a dozen people. But one day, he said, a new tenant came in. They met in the elevator. The new guy said he had a contract with the Agency for International Development. The money flowed and his staff of 20 people doubled, and doubled again.
“I don’t know if that guy is still in business,” the minor contractor said, “but I know at the time he was untouchable because of the support he had on Capitol Hill.”
It is impossible to say, of course, what course the proposed reforms will take and how much good, or not, they will do.
But it could be that the push-back the President gets from the contractor lobby will be nothing compared to the flack he takes from members of both parties in the House and Senate who have shown in recent bailout/stimulus packages that pork is still their favorite fruit.