Senator solicits advice for new contracting panel

The chairwoman of a newly formed Senate contracting oversight panel is reaching out to the public for help with setting her agenda.

On Thursday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., circulated an open letter asking for advice about the direction the new Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight should take. The panel will have broad oversight authority over all aspects of federal contracting.

"I'd like to hear from you," McCaskill wrote. "What contract or program needs additional oversight? What laws, regulations and policies need to be changed? What hearings would you like to see?"

The senator encouraged recipients to offer their opinions through an online discussion forum or by e-mailing the subcommittee at contracting_oversight@mccaskill.senate.gov or whistleblowers@mccaskill.senate.gov.

As of Friday afternoon, 129 people had submitted 75 suggestions on the discussion board. In addition, more than 1,200 people had voted on the quality of those recommendations.

The suggestions reflected a diversity of opinion outside the Beltway about the state of federal contracting. Many contributors called for greater transparency of contracting documents; others urged more government accountability of taxpayer dollars.

For example, Arcent from Missouri suggested that contracting officers institute financial penalties for late delivery of product or services. "I also think they should incorporate contractor input in the [request for proposals] process," Arcent wrote. "Contractors are often an excellent source of cost-cutting alternatives."

John from Houston advised officials to set outcome-based goals. "Demand that every project have pragmatic outcomes and aggressively demand that those outcomes are met," he wrote. "No project should be approved without strict and high stakes pragmatic metrics which would carry with them incentives and consequences."

Many discussion participants also offered strong opinions about cost-plus and sole-source contracting.

"Cost-plus contracts provide no incentive for contractors to reduce costs," wrote Kevin E., of Maple Shade, N.J. "Fixed-price contracts offer rewards for companies that find ways of cutting costs."

President Obama has asked the Office of Management and Budget to review policies on cost-plus contracting.

In her letter, McCaskill said the subcommittee would rely on the assistance of auditors, inspectors general, contractors, local chambers of commerce and watchdog groups to investigate contracting abuses.

"Problems have occurred at every stage of the contracting process, from pre-award planning and requirements development through the recovery of overcharges," she said. "The contracting workforce is no longer adequate to handle the volume and complexity of the contracting workload. And the lack of oversight has been an invitation to waste, fraud and abuse."

The panel will have the authority to conduct independent investigations and will hold frequent hearings that will examine both past mistakes in contracting and ways to improve the system, according to McCaskill.

A spokeswoman for the senator said an announcement on the date and topic of the first hearing will come within the next week or two.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., announced the formation of the panel in January. The subcommittee will be in place until the end of the 111th Congress. The next Congress will decide if it should be reauthorized.

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