Commentary

A Small Step for Contractors

For a long time now, much of the discussion of the use of private contractors on the battlefield and war zones has been sensationalistic and not particularly helpful. Either contractors are just patriots helping out their former comrades, as most of them are former military themselves, or they are just war profiteering money-grubbers who trample on human rights. Neither view is correct.

Two years ago, I suggested that the time is right for Congress to take one modest step to improving the quality of this public discussion by forming its own caucus on the issue. Surely, if we can have congressional caucuses devoted to Alzheimer’s, textiles and alcohol fuels, we can have one devoted to an industry that deals with an enduring question in international affairs, namely who gets to use force and under what circumstances.

It appears that Congress has finally done just that, although its coverage of private contractors is far broader than what I wrote about, focusing on all contractors working for the federal government, and not just private military or security contractors.

On May 22, seven-term Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., ranking member and former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who is retiring at the end of this term, announced the formation of the “Smart Contracting Caucus.”

The caucus is a Congressional Member Organization, registered with the Committee on House Administration. Davis solicited membership in an April 24 Dear Colleague letter to all House member offices. In the press release announcing the caucus Davis said: “The federal government spends about $430 billion per year on contracts for goods and services. It is incumbent upon members to ensure we do this efficiently.”

To date the caucus members include Rep. Davis, Rep. Christopher Shays , R-Conn., Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Pa., Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. That is six Republicans and three Democrats.

Still, while the members may have differing philosophical perspectives, their objective is sound. As the Dear Colleague letter Davis sent around noted, “Although we may have different views about the proper roles of government contractors, we all can agree ensuring taxpayer dollars are well spent should be a top priority for the entire Congress,” it said.

The federal procurement system can be complicated and cumbersome, and making it more competitive, accessible, accountable and transparent requires a thoughtful, reasonable review. Currently more than a dozen congressional committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over various facets of the federal contracting system.

The caucus says it will “discuss experiences and approaches from different agencies and departments, vet reasonable oversight solutions and share positive contracting experiences. Short-term fixes and sound-bite solutions that rely more on anecdote than fact do not readily translate into effective reform of the contracting system.”

The caucus will allow members and staff to share information and facilitate briefings with experts from think tanks, academia, industry and government and independent oversight organizations.

Of course, the devil is in the details. The way to ensure the use of contractors produces real cost savings and greater efficiency, and to make it more likely that commitments to their use will not be counterproductive, is to adopt a much more public decision-making process, with a far larger active role for Congress, together with robust oversight and accounting for both expenditures and performance.

This means closer regulation, mandatory audit trails, regular reporting, and greater public access to non-sensitive records. And this will require a much more coherent body of laws and regulations than we now have. What the caucus intends to do, if anything, to promote those goals is unknown.

Indeed, the section on the smartcontracting.org Web site on so-called myths about contractors’ lists:

“There is insufficient oversight of federal contracting, which leads to rampant waste, fraud and abuse.”

“The government’s reliance on contractors has exploded in the last five years, creating a ‘shadow workforce’ consisting of nearly 8 million contractors.”

“As federal contracting has grown, competition for federal contracts has diminished greatly.”

“Contractors are taking over ‘inherently governmental’ roles and responsibilities.”

Also, the Web site notes it is led by the Professional Services Council — the national association of the government professional and technical services industry. Although the PSC is a well respected group, which has offered much useful analysis on the contracting industry, as a trade group it hardly can be considered impartial or neutral on the issue.

Time will tell how serious the caucus is in its efforts, as we see which experts they chose to brief them. But in the meantime we can hope they will choose to seriously investigate and work to improve the way the federal government does business with the private sector.

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a forthcoming book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.