Waste charges rattle Library of Congress

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Management at the Library of Congress, the world’s largest storehouse of knowledge, has a poor memory. For a decade, problems of overspending, no-bid contracts, and improper care for some of mankind’s rarest books and artifacts have been brought to upper-level attention—but problems have only worsened.

The library’s inspector general, Karl Schornagel, who has monitored and reviewed the institution’s activities for the past 11 years, reported in March that he found $771,163 in questionable spending from the prior six months. The semiannual report also said that employees failed to use $1 million in funds before they expired due to lack of communication and coordination. And an outside consulting firm, Jefferson Solutions, found that more than half of $52 million worth of contracts chosen at random for review were awarded without opening the pool to competitors who could have offered a lower bid.

While spending is under scrutiny, the library is seriously stretched for space. No funding for future buildings has been appropriated, and while the collection in Landover, Md., will be able to hold a million books after a completed renovation in October, the library adds 250,000 books and periodicals a year, so the fight for space remains.

The inspector general’s office reported that librarians are storing books on the floor, double- and triple-shelving materials, and keeping rare and valuable collections in nonsecure areas. The Asian Division, which grew out of its designated secure space, recently lost a valuable scroll that was kept in a cage, but the scroll was later mysteriously returned. During the search for the scroll, the inspector general’s office also discovered a number of valuable artifacts left out in vulnerable locations.

Congress appropriated $587.3 million in taxpayer dollars to the Library of Congress for fiscal 2012, a portion of which went to contractors. Schornagel did not reveal which specific contracts had not been sent out for bids, but he did say that library contracts often carried hefty price tags, such as $40 million for an IT contract and more than $50 million for talking-book machines for the blind and disabled.

Last week, the House Appropriations Committee directed the library to hire an in-house top-level manager to see that contracts are awarded sensibly and to report to the committee by year’s end on the corrective actions that have been taken.

“The Committee believes that any issues associated with any findings that are not addressed, corrected, and eliminated within a 10-year period require immediate attention,” the Appropriations Committee wrote in its recommendations for the budget.

For its part, the library says it is up to the challenge.

“The library acknowledges there have been recurring challenges in this area, and the current senior management is committed to putting lasting solutions in place,” said library spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg.

The revolving door of senior management positions at the library hasn’t helped matters. The leaders in place in 2008 who promised to see that bids for contracts were open for competition have been replaced by a new batch, according to Schornagel. The inspector general also says the problems in the contracting office have deteriorated.

“The reason this has gone on for 10 years is because there is a lack of continuity in leadership,” Schornagel told National Journal Daily. “And beyond that, there’s really no excuse. That’s not even an excuse. There’s really no good reason.”

In theory, the Library of Congress follows the Federal Acquisition Regulation guidelines, which call for all federal agencies to award contracts in a cost-efficient manner and promote competition. But unlike most federal agencies, which fall under the executive branch, the library answers to the legislative branch and is therefore not bound by the same rules. The library is allowed to bend the regulations according to its own discretion, Schornagel says.

The House Appropriations Committee last week increased the library’s budget by nearly $5.3 million in its recommendations for fiscal 2013. Still, the appropriation is more than $10.9 million below the library’s request, which is based on its future needs. If absorbed by salaries alone, the cut would mean laying off 189 full-time employees. But Osterberg says the library could save money in other areas. Schornagel hopes the library will not put a freeze on construction to cut costs.

“During 11 years in the job, I have watched the space getting worse,” Schornagel said. “It’s a tough budget environment, but this has got to be handled sooner rather than later.” Schornagel added that neither the outside consulting firm nor his own staff has been able to quantify how much could have been saved by opening up contracts to competitive bidding. In December, the House Appropriations Committee will review Schornagel’s next semiannual report and the report of the library’s new trouble-shooter with the hope that the home of 151 million books, artifacts, and other national treasures will finally make good on its promises.

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