Senators seek to hold TSA to standard acquisition rules

An amendment to the fiscal 2008 Homeland Security appropriations bill introduced in the Senate would require the Transportation Security Administration to adhere to the same procurement regulations as other federal agencies.

TSA is one of the few agencies not required to comply with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, a set of rules governing procurement. TSA has been exempt since its inception in November 2001, in order to allow the agency to quickly install security screening equipment at airports after Sept. 11.

The co-sponsors -- Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine -- offered an identical amendment to last year's Homeland Security appropriations bill; that amendment passed the Senate by a unanimous voice vote but was not enacted into law.

"Obviously, it stalled somewhere along the process, but we're working with the appropriate people now to try and ensure that doesn't happen this time around," said John Gentzel, Snowe's press secretary.

The current amendment had been offered but not yet voted on as of late Thursday afternoon.

Gentzel said the exemption is "no longer necessary because we have long since passed the time when TSA had to scurry to secure airports after [Sept. 11]. TSA is the last agency that should be exempt from basic contracting laws, given its record of waste."

Kerry is the chairman of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and Snowe is the ranking member. When announcing the amendment last year, Kerry also cited TSA's "long record of contract mismanagement" and said the agency's adherence to the FAR would create a competitive playing field.

"Washington shouldn't be fleecing American citizens to protect them," Kerry said. "We need to put an end to multibillion-dollar no-bid contracts. My amendment will hold TSA to the same rules as every other federal agency and increase contracting opportunities for small businesses."

The Professional Services Council, an association representing contractors, applauded the amendment in a letter to the co-sponsors.

The provision would "increase competition, expand opportunities for greater small business participation, provide greater accountability and transparency in . . . procurement processes, and provide greater options for addressing the challenges of the department's acquisition workforce," wrote Alan Chvotkin, PSC senior vice president and counsel.

In addition to benefiting watchdogs and potential contractors, Chvotkin said TSA compliance would offer the agency's procurement officials a clear set of guidelines and provide continuity between TSA and other agencies.

"As TSA seeks to train its current workforce and further expand its acquisition workforce, the degree of commonality between its acquisition procedures and other federal agency practices will have a real effect on the cost and efficiencies of bringing in skilled professionals," Chvotkin said.

The amendment also would benefit TSA's parent agency -- the Homeland Security Department, Gentzel said. It is "hard for DHS to have a common contracting system when its largest contractor follows different rules."

A TSA spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

TSA's Acquisition Management System currently mirrors that of the Federal Aviation Administration. According to Snowe's press release, the FAA's system is exempt from major procurement laws like the Competition in Contracting Act and the Small Business Act. The Competition in Contracting Act requires agencies to use full and open competitive procedures for procurements; the Small Business Act provides assistance for small companies in the procurement process and sets aside certain contracts for small businesses exclusively.

TSA also is not required to fully disclose acquisition-related information and can enter into sole-source contracts if it can provide a rationale for doing so. If the amendment passes, TSA would be required to be in compliance with the FAR within 180 days.

On Aug. 1, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Investigations and Oversight will hold a hearing on TSA's exemption. Chvotkin and Richard Gunderson, TSA chief procurement officer and assistant administrator for acquisition, will testify.

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