OMB vows to fight efforts to derail competitive sourcing

Federal procurement chief Angela Styles vowed Tuesday to fight congressional attempts to block the administration's competitive sourcing initiative, including legislation that would prevent new job competitions at the Forest Service and most Interior Department agencies next year.

Acknowledging that the drive for competition may meet more resistance from Congress, Styles pledged to resist efforts to exempt certain agencies and employees from competitive sourcing.

"We're going to have legislative battles on this," she said at a Washington conference sponsored by the IBM Endowment for the Business of Government. "We have them with air traffic control; we're going to have them at Interior. People are going to try and pick these off one by one. And we're going to fight every one of them. And we're going to fight them hard because this is a matter of principle."

Styles said the administration would resist a provision in the House Interior appropriations bill, Section 335, to block funding for new job competitions at the Forest Service and most Interior agencies in fiscal 2004. The land management agencies would be allowed to finish competitions begun in 2002 and 2003, but could not start new competitions in 2004 under the provision.

"You can't tell me that the janitors in the national parks are inherently governmental," said Styles. "There are other functions that people are performing in our national parks that possibly could be performed by the private sector . . . it is only in our best interest to take a look at it."

The measure was approved by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, chaired by Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., and will be considered by the full House Appropriations Committee Wednesday. Interior's Bureau of Reclamation is funded by a different subcommittee and would not be affected by the funding freeze.

The appropriations subcommittee acted in part to prod agencies to request specific funds for job competitions, instead of diverting funds from other operations, which both Interior and the Forest Service have done to date, according to House staffers. "While the committee is supportive of the goals of these initiatives, the costs have, by-and-large, not been requested in annual budget justifications," said the committee in its report on the provision.

The subcommittee also was concerned with the cost involved in staging job competitions. The Forest Service had planned to spend $10 million on job competitions in fiscal 2003, a figure that includes contractor support and the cost of running a competitive sourcing office in Washington, according to Thomas Mills, deputy director for business operations at the agency. On Tuesday, Mills said the Forest Service will conduct another estimate of the cost of its competitive sourcing in response to congressional concerns.

"It looks like there's enough interest that we're going to do a new estimate," he said. "I'm fairly confident it will be more than $10 million," he added.

Some Forest Service employees believe the costs are much higher. Carl Houtman, an engineer at the Forest Products lab in Madison, Wis., tracked meetings his office held on the topic between October last year and March. By adding contract costs to the cost of staff time devoted to the process, he found his office spent $350,000 on competitive sourcing over a six-month period. Houtman, who is a local steward for the National Federation of Federal Employees, a union representing Forest Service employees, believes the agency could be spending up to $140 million on competitive sourcing when all costs are factored in.

Mills said that figure is much too high. "There's no way that we think it's as high as $140 million," he said.

The Interior subcommittee also worried that competitive sourcing is keeping Forest Service contracting officers from performing their normal jobs. Last summer, the Forest Service halted many construction projects and maintenance to free up funds to fight wildfires. Congress restored much of this funding, but some contracting officers are too busy supporting job competitions to restart these projects, according to the subcommittee.

"The committee is concerned that all forests and most contracting officers will be heavily impacted by this effort at a time when they should concentrate their attention on improving business practices," states the subcommittee's report.

The subcommittee's provision has sparked resistance from other quarters in Congress. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, opposes the measure. "This type of freeze is bad policy and bad for the American taxpayer," said Scott Kopple, deputy communications director for the committee. "Competitive sourcing saves taxpayers [money] while giving people more efficient service."

The American Council of Engineering Companies, a Washington-based association of engineering firms, is also fighting Section 335. "ACEC will oppose any amendment that shields federal agencies from A-76 competitions," said Camille Fleenor, the council's director of federal procurement policy.

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