Contracting Improvements

Posted Sept. 16, 2008, at 4:59 p.m.

With the current focus on presidential politics — or personalities — and oil drilling, government contracting, never an exciting topic, has taken a back seat. But reforms are needed to save the taxpayers money and to ensure good quality work is done.

Congress has failed to pass comprehensive contracting reform legislation, but now it has the opportunity to do so as part of a larger defense authorization bill.

The overriding problem is that government oversight hasn’t kept pace with the rapid growth in government contracts. The dollar amount of federal contracts has doubled since 2000, yet the trained federal work force to purchase and oversee contracts has declined. Government contract purchases now exceed $400 billion a year.

This lack of oversight leads to waste and abuse. For example, 40,000 trailers purchased by the Federal Emergency Management Agency sat in Hope, Ark., two years after they were supposed to be used to house evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. In addition to the cost of the trailers, which deteriorated to be unusable, the government spent $25,000 a month to store them.

The Special Inspector General for Iraq has uncovered billions of dollars worth of subpar and unfinished work and U.S. funds that are simply unaccounted for. An audit last year of eight projects found that in seven, equipment such as generators at Baghdad’s airport and a water purification system, were not working properly or were substandard.

To avoid such problems, legislation, co-authored by Sen. Susan Collins, would require that the government hire and train more people to oversee and manage government contracts. A corps of experienced contract specialists would be ready and available to handle emergency situations.

The bill also would require that the contracting process be more transparent. It would limit non-competitive contracts to urgent circumstances and even then limit the duration of such contracts.

The Senate last year unanimously passed these and other changes but the bill got hung up in the House over issues of minority contracting.

The defense funding bill now before Congress also includes an important change in U.S. policy in Iraq as well. A provision, authored by Sen. Collins, and Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh and Ben Nelson, would require the Iraqi government, which has more than $70 billion in surplus oil revenues, to pay for more reconstruction and security work.

These changes will help ensure that government contracts are more carefully written and executed, and that the Iraqi government takes more responsibility for security and rebuilding the country, saving taxpayers money. They should be enacted as soon as possible.

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