Business and labor battle over contractor ethics rule

Labor groups and business associations resumed a battle over a rule that sets ethics standards for government contractors Monday at a public meeting held by the Federal Acquisition Regulatory (FAR) Council. Twenty-one groups appeared before the Council to share their thoughts on a possible reversal of the controversial ethics regulation, which went into effect one day before President Clinton left office. On April 3, the Bush administration imposed a 270-day stay on the ethics regulation and published a rule in the Federal Register seeking comment on whether the regulation should be revoked. Representatives from business and labor groups presented starkly different views on the need for the ethics rule and the ability of government contracting officers to enforce it in a fair way. Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Aerospace Industry Association of America and the Contract Services Association said the rule duplicates existing regulations and requires contracting officers to make broad judgments about a contractor's record on labor and environmental issues. "Government agents could wield virtually unlimited power if this rule stands," said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor and employee benefits with the Chamber of Commerce. "Mere allegations of wrongdoing could prevent a business from winning a federal contract." Mark Wagner, manager of government affairs with the Florida-based aerospace contractor Johnson Controls, said the rule amounts to "double jeopardy" for contractors who have long-since resolved labor and environmental concerns. "It could hurt companies that have owned up to errors and paid relative fines and penalties," he said. Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, said the rule was merely an attempt to keep the U.S. from subsidizing chronic lawbreakers. "If a company can't play by the rules that Congress set for the country, why should it receive a government contract?" she asked. Chavez-Thompson also blasted the Bush administration for working "quickly and quietly" to overturn the rule with a minimum of public comment. Vice President Al Gore launched the Clinton administration's push for the contractor ethics rule in a 1997 address to the AFL-CIO. Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, challenged the notion that contracting officers are unable to evaluate a contractor's ethical behavior. "We trust contracting officers to make multimillion dollar awards, but don't think they are capable of finding out if companies are repeated violators of basic laws," he said. The ethics rule was supported at the FAR Council meeting by one member of industry, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, which represents 2,000 construction contractors. Like the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act and other recent procurement reforms, the rule helps the government become a better customer, said Lonnie Coleman, president of Cleveland-based Coleman Construction. The deadline for comments on the proposed revocation of the rule is July 6. Written comments should be sent to: General Services Administration,
FAR Secretariat (MVP), 1800 F Street, N.W., Room 4035,
ATTN: Laurie Duarte, Washington, D.C. 20405
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