No Entrepreneurs, Please

ljacobso@njdc.com

According to President Clinton, the era of big government is over. But that isn't good enough for many business lobbyists.

A group of about 30 business groups don't just want federal agencies to outsource duties they currently handle in-house. They also want to stop agencies from branching out into their own turf, a trend that has accelerated in the 1990s, when many agencies began seeing their appropriations shrink and tried selling their services to other agencies and private firms to make up for the cuts.

To some agencies, environmental testing by national laboratories, public helicopter tours-for-hire by military reservists or the creation of World Wide Web sites by one agency for another reduce costs to taxpayers while harnessing the specialized--and otherwise underutilized--skills of federal employees.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and a host of smaller organizations--ranging from travel agents to fitness club operators--vehemently disagree. "We at the Chamber see this as one of our top policy priorities this year," says Robert Raasch, the Chamber's associate manager for domestic policy.

Critics charge that federal agencies have overstepped by wrongly interpreting the repeated encouragement of "entrepreneurial government" by the National Performance Review.

"This is greatly impacting a number of our members," says Tony Pagliaro, director of government relations for the American Council of Independent Laboratories. "We have no problem with national labs doing research and development and their core missions. If they want to do development for the military, fine. But we also don't need them doing waste-water testing. We don't understand why they need to be in our marketplace."

The Freedom from Government Competition Act, now pending in both the House and Senate, would mandate that any federal activities that are not inherently governmental, such as national security, be performed by the private sector, as long as specified accounting methods confirmed that private firms could do the tasks more efficiently. They would also prevent agencies from venturing into competition with private sector firms.

Supporters--including sponsor Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and at least 10 co-sponsors, so far all Republican--are preparing for a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing in June and predict Senate action by mid-summer. "With that happening on the Senate side, this thing could get rolling and get attached to a bigger vehicle such as budget reconciliation," Raasch said.

House action on a bill sponsored by John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., could take longer, sources said. Initial attempts to insert a provision into the House "Blue Dog" budget proposal--which was offered by a caucus of moderate, deficit-conscious Democrats--was unsuccessful, says Felix Martinez, the director of procurement programs at the American Consulting Engineers Council. Martinez, whose group says it is losing construction jobs to the Tennessee Valley Authority and other federal and quasi-federal entities, said he and his allies are continuing to lobby the Blue Dogs.

The Clinton Administration has not yet decided its stance on these bills, an Office of Management and Budget spokesman said.

Reformers have cobbled together a broad coalition of associations, each with complaints against particular agencies. Campground owners resent the National Park Service building public campsites near private ones. Mappers are tired of competing for jobs with the U.S. Geological Survey. Everybody from movers to Web site designers would like a crack at assignments currently handled by the General Services Administration and its sprawling real-estate and equipment management empire.

"When the Post Office starts selling teddy bears," Raasch said, "they're getting totally away from the agency's core mission."

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