Senate contracting reform bill wins support

Government and private sector officials expressed measured support Tuesday for a Senate bill that would overhaul the federal acquisition process.

The Accountability in Government Contracting Act (S. 680), introduced in February by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, aims to strengthen the acquisition workforce, improve oversight of contracts and promote competition and transparency.

At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday, both the chief of the Government Accountability Office and the chair of the Services Acquisition Reform Act Advisory Committee said the bill took many of their recommendations into consideration.

"Let me commend the sponsors of this legislation," said David M. Walker, the comptroller general. "The act addresses a number of areas of concern GAO has had over the years. We believe it has a number of meritorious provisions, and we're broadly supportive of this legislation."

Walker said the watchdog agency does have several suggestions for improving the bill, however, and will provide the committee with those recommendations within a week.

At the hearing, Marcia Madsen, the chairwoman of the Services Acquisition Reform Act Advisory Committee, a group created by the 2004 Defense Authorization Act, summarized the panel's full report. An initial list of recommendations was released in February and was taken into consideration before the bill was introduced.

The witnesses discussed several provisions of the bill specifically, including a requirement that sole source contracts awarded in the wake of an emergency be opened up to competitive bids after 150 days and language giving losing bidders the ability to protest elements within larger contracts.

They supported the requirement that sole source contracts awarded under the justification that they fill an urgent and compelling need eventually face competing bids, but there was some discussion of whether the 150-day limit was reasonable.

"Our general concern is that a general provision with a firm timeline could collide with certain realities," said Stan Soloway, the president of the Professional Services Council, an association representing contractors. "One-hundred and fifty or 180 days could generally be more than enough time, but in some cases it may not be."

Walker echoed concern over the strict time limit, saying GAO would have to discuss necessary exceptions with the committee.

Meanwhile, Collins was taken aback by Soloway's lack of support for the expanded bid protest rights for task orders over $5 million.

"I'm a little surprised that Mr. Soloway has concerns," Collins said. "Our goal is to help smaller businesses, medium-sized businesses who feel they could have competed and were shut out and to get them an affordable, fast, reliable remedy at GAO."

Soloway explained that while increased transparency is important for small and mid-tier contractors, the firms would benefit more from the provisions mandating debriefing sessions and the public posting of task orders.

"The greatest concern from small and mid-tier firms is that although $5 million is not a small amount of money -- it's a very significant amount of money -- in the pantheon of federal contracting, it is a fairly routine amount," Soloway said. With the provision, "you could be adding costly litigation that is very burdensome on smaller and mid-tier firms, a burden they don't particularly savor taking on."

Walker said GAO, which decides bid protests, would be able to handle the extra cases that might arise from expanded rights to challenge task orders. But he said the cost threshold, if reconsidered, should not be lower than $5 million.

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