Senator takes aim at acquisition revolving door

Lawmakers next week may take up a proposal that would place new limits on where federal procurement officials can work after they leave government.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has crafted an amendment to the 2005 Defense authorization bill that would broaden the reach of the Procurement Integrity Act, a law restricting the relationship between federal contracting officers and companies bidding on government projects. Senators will resume debate on the Defense bill next week.

Under current procurement law, contracting officers must wait at least a year before leaving the government to work for a company to which they've awarded a contract worth more than $10 million. Byrd's language would extend the waiting period to two years.

The amendment also expands the ethics law to procurement policymakers, including political appointees, members of the Senior Executive Service and military officials. Before leaving the government, covered employees would need to file with the Office of Government Ethics a list of projects and policies on which they worked.

A spate of scandals uncovered in the late 1980s led to a strengthening of procurement ethics rules. But alleged breaches by former Air Force procurement executive Darleen Druyun attracted renewed attention to the issue. Druyun pleaded guilty earlier this year to covering up negotiations with Boeing about a future job while she was overseeing a potential multibillion-dollar deal for the Air Force to lease tanker aircraft from the contractor.

"When such a revolving door continues to turn, year after year, creating a perception of public servants -- exaggerated or not -- greedily trying to cash in on their knowledge of the procurement system, the Congress has a responsibility to address the laws of ethics," Byrd said.

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., has said that current ethics rules are "laughable" and that Druyun's case has served to spotlight a problem that arises every day in government. "I don't think it would hurt to tighten the rules, and if we do it right it might prevent people from being corrupted," Fitzgerald said.

Agency officials, however, have argued against tightening the rules, fearing that such a move would make it difficult to recruit and retain procurement personnel and to do business with contractors. "The rules we have today have been tried and tested," said David Drabkin, deputy associate administrator for acquisition policy at the General Services Administration. He called Druyun's situation an "aberration" that should not lead to more regulation.

Larry Farrell, president of the National Defense Industrial Association, said the government benefits when companies hire former federal managers and executives. "It's good to have been on both sides because then you know how the system really works and can improve it," he said.

But the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog organization, has called for increased restrictions on where former federal employees can work. "The revolving door has become such a part of federal contracting in recent years that frequently it makes it difficult to determine where the government stops and the private sector begins," the group stated in a recent report.

Byrd's proposal is "a great step in closing some revolving door loopholes," said Scott Amey, general counsel at POGO. He said that most civil servants do not use their jobs as steppingstones to higher-paying positions in the private sector, and that it demoralizes them when they see colleagues who do.

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