House Opens Up Government Contracting Bill

Thursday, March 15th 2007, 7:12 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Openness in federal contracting, a major issue in tracking the billions of dollars spent in Iraq, is on the agenda as House Democrats wrap up a week dedicated to providing the public with more information on the workings of government.

The Accountability in Contracting Act to be voted on Thursday is the fifth open-government bill considered by the House, and like most of the others the administration has voiced strong opposition, charging that regulations imposed by Congress would do more harm than good.

The legislation would require agencies to limit the length of sole source contracts awarded in urgent situations and demand the use of more fixed-price contracts for procurement programs.

It also would require more reporting on contracts and clarify rules on government procurement officials who may have past or future relations with the companies seeking the contracts.

Democrats have complained about the use of noncompetitive contracts in Iraq and elsewhere. Much of the criticism was directed toward Halliburton, a giant oil services company once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney that was given noncompetitive work to restore Iraq's oil production.

``The American people expect government employees to be wise stewards of their federal tax dollars and to be free of conflicts of interest,'' Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said when the bill was approved earlier this week by the Armed Services Committee he chairs.

But the Bush administration, in a statement, said it ``strongly opposes'' the bill, saying it would overlap with more efficient administrative efforts to improve competition and reduce fraud, waste and abuse in contracting.

The administration said the bill also would limit the government's ability to tap the technical expertise of federal employees who are former contractor employees.

On Wednesday the House, with strong Republican support, passed four bills to make presidential and executive branch activities more transparent.

Two directly affect the president _ with one requiring that contributors to the presidential library make their donations public and another overturning a directive by President Bush making it easier for current and former presidents to withhold their records from historians and the public.

Another gives the public and the media more clout in getting sometimes-reluctant federal agencies to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The fourth expands whistle-blower protections, specifically for national security officials, airport screeners and government scientists who say they experience political pressure or retaliation because of their research.

Several Democrats said faulty intelligence before the invasion of Iraq might have been exposed if security officials had had better channels to reveal their misgivings.

``Seldom has the need for whistle-blowers' unfiltered voice been more urgent,'' said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. ``Those with whom we trust the nation's secrets are too often treated like second-class citizens.''

The Union of Concerned Scientists also hailed an amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., that extends whistle-blower protections to the publication of federally funded scientific research. ``Federal scientists working to protect our health and safety must have the right to publish the results of their research,'' said the union's senior scientist, Francesca Grifo.

But the administration said it opposed the FOIA bill, arguing that the administration already was taking steps to streamline the often-delayed process of answering requests for information, and issued veto threats against the presidential records and whistle-blower bills.

The whistle-blower measure, it said, ``could compromise national security, is unconstitutional and is overly burdensome and unnecessary.''

The Senate is already moving on the FOIA bill, with the Judiciary Committee holding hearings Wednesday on legislation offered by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The Senate also must consider the other bills before they can go to the president.

The open government theme was part of Sunshine Week, March 11-17, a three-year-old national initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.