WASHINGTON – Lawmakers and government workers rallied on the steps of the Capitol last week, demanding stricter regulation of federal contractors who they said are wasting money.
They were rallying in support of Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Largo, and his Truthfulness, Responsibility and Accountability in Contracting bill. The so- called TRAC bill would stop nearly all new federal contracting until private firms can prove they are 10 percent cheaper and 10 percent more effective than government workers at the same job.
Wynn, along with about 60 co-sponsors and unions like the American Federation of Government Employees, claim “there’s lot’s of evidence of waste and abuse” of government funds by contractors.
But determining that the money spent on contracting was wasted would be like “throwing darts at a board,” said Les Davison, an administrator at the General Services Administration.
And critics said that not only can the private sector do a better job in many instances, but that Wynn’s bill could backfire and harm the federal workers it is designed to protect, by essentially putting procurement officers out of a job while the moratorium is in place.
“To impose a moratorium is just too drastic a measure,” Davison said. “The commercial world does some of this stuff better than we do anyway.”
Davison is acting deputy administrator of the Office of Acquisition Policy, which monitors contracting policy for the federal government. He said the days of contractors slipping $800 toilet seats and $500 hammers past the government are long gone, and that contracting is now closely monitored by agencies like the General Accounting Office and the Office of Personnel Management.
The GSA said the government spent $200 billion on private contracting in fiscal 1999, down $5 billion from the year before. Davison attributes the drop to closer monitoring of contracts.
Wynn maintains that contractors have not been forced to prove that their work is saving the government money. He said there is little to no monitoring of contractors’ services and said he wants to ensure that the private sector is not milking the government.
Several government agency managers said there is no proof that contractors are milking the government — but there is no evidence that they are not, either. They said that finding hard proof of wasteful contracting is difficult to do, particularly in the emotionally charged debate over people’s jobs.
“We often get that question from congressmen,” said Nye Stevens, director of Federal Management and Work Issues at the General Accounting Office.
He agrees better monitoring of contractors is necessary, but also questions the necessity of the moratorium.
Ron Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Institute, agrees with Wynn that the government should more closely monitor contractors, but does not “believe the need for better management justifies the need for a moratorium.”
“Contracting has been advantageous,” Utt said.
That was echoed by Edward Hudgins, director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.
“The issue is you can get a service more efficiently and at less cost when going to the private sector,” Hudgins said. “This [bill] distracts attention from the broader question as to what services the government should be offering in the first place.”
Besides calling for closer regulation of contractors, TRAC would also encourage federal workers to compete with the private sector for contracted-out jobs and it would let agencies hire more government employees to do jobs now done by private industry.
“You have situations that could have been done cheaper by federal employees,” Wynn said of his bill. TRAC supporters also say that private contractors, driven by profit, sometimes do shoddy work that ends up costing the government more in the long run.
But federal managers and think-tank analysts like Hudgins and Utt warn that letting agencies hire workers would just bulk up the government. It could also lead to wasteful overlapping of services offered by the public and private sectors, they said.
Davison said the government should focus on services that the private sector does not provide on an extensive level. But in areas like administrative support, accounting and maintenance, contracting out can save money without damaging the service the public sees, he said.
Stevens said contracting has good and bad qualities.
“It works best when the task is straightforward, where little interpretation is involved,” such as clerical and maintenance work, he said.
In situations where interpretation and improvisation are required, however, he said federal workers are most needed, because they often are most familiar with the jobs.
The debate continues to rage between contractors and federal workers afraid of losing their jobs, between congressmen and think tanks afraid of offending their constituencies. And Stevens predicted it will continue for some time.
“I don’t think there is a single answer,” Stevens said.