Tough Talk

Campaign promises to shake up contracting and the federal workforce are short on details.

On Aug. 7, the Democratic presidential hopefuls met at the 10-yard line of Soldier Field Stadium in Chicago for the latest in a series of issue-specific debates, this time an AFL-CIO forum on unions, infrastructure and trade. Near the end of the debate, moderator Keith Olbermann of MSNBC posed this seemingly innocuous question to Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware: "Would you pledge to stop no-bid contracts?" Biden's one word response-yes-elicited a healthy scattering of laughter and applause, if only for its brevity.

While Biden's answer reflects the sentiments of many Americans who view sole-source contracting (technically, there is no such thing as a no-bid contract) as an unfair advantage for large companies, it fails to address the nuances of federal procurement policy the next president will inherit. Would Biden include a temporary exemption to aid victims of a domestic catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina or when only one vendor is capable of performing a highly specialized job? As with most issues on the campaign trail, the devil is in the details. And details, particularly those concerning contractors and the size of the federal workforce, have been tough to come by this election season.

Last spring, the front-runners for the White House, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Republican Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, unveiled proposals to shake up the federal workforce. Their plans were as bold in stature as they were thin on explanation.

Clinton vowed to use an executive order to cut 500,000 federal contractors from the federal payroll, saving taxpayers between $10 billion and $18 billion annually. The former first lady said competitive bidding would be required for the remaining contracts, although she carved out a needed exception. "In the rare case where noncompetitive contracts might be appropriate, we'll make sure they have competitive oversight," Clinton told a Manchester, N.H., crowd in April.

Giuliani took a different tack, promising to reduce the federal civilian workforce by about 20 percent through attrition and retirement. According to recent estimates, within the next decade, 42 percent of government workers will be eligible to retire.

Giuliani told the Heritage Foundation in May that he would replace only half of those employees, saving a whopping $70 billion per year. He also would require agencies to identify 5 percent to 20 percent in unnecessary spending. "The challenge will be, of course, to convince the Democrats that there's such a thing as a nonessential government employee," he said.

The debaters were appealing to two vastly different views of federal contracting-an anti-outsourcing movement fed up with the horror stories of Halliburton and Blackwater and a constituency that believes private industry can do a better job than federal workers. But beyond the rhetoric, the substance of the two plans leaves a number of unanswered questions.

If Giuliani were to trim roughly 150,000 federal employees from the government coffers, who would pick up the slack? The former mayor said the cuts could be accomplished through "technology and privatization," but would adding an equal number of new contractors make the government "smaller and smarter" as he suggested? Or, as some suspect, would federal agencies simply be asked to do more with less, a daunting prospect in the wake of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to Katrina and the bureaucratic crisis stifling long-term medical care at Veterans Affairs Department hospitals.

Clinton's slash-and-burn strategy toward contractors also raises questions. Which private industry jobs would the senator eliminate to accomplish such large cutbacks? And, if more government employees are the answer, would that fly during a time when most believe the federal bureaucracy is already too hefty?

Left unsaid is the irony of Clinton's plan. The reinventing government platform of her husband's administration cut more than 300,000 federal jobs through a reliance on new technology and targeting outdated functions. Many say that helped create the contract-dependent culture that Clinton has vowed to cut. Neither campaign responded to requests from Government Executive to elaborate on their plans.

Contracting and federal management experts welcome a substantive national discussion about government reform-often too dry a topic for the outside-the-Beltway crowd-but differ on the specificity the public requires at this point in the campaign.

"To say that the proposals have been scant would be an understatement," says Kent Sholars, legislative affairs manager for the Contract Services Association of America, a contractor trade group based in Arlington, Va., that has been critical of the language Democrats have used in the campaign to describe private industry. "It seems like campaign rhetoric, not realistic proposals."

Sholars suggests that the presidential hopefuls lack a thorough understanding of the contractor-federal employee pendulum. But Jonathan D. Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government in Washington, says the public doesn't need an "inside baseball" education about contracting minutia to grasp a candidate's overall reform policy. Breul says both plans have some merit and neither is impossible to achieve with the right planning. "They just have to be done reflecting their policies and priorities," he says. "But you need to have a smart team, because if you are overly simplistic, you are going to stub your toe."

The other top campaigners, with rare exceptions, have offered scarce details about how they would manage the federal workforce. Among the Democrats, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would require contracts in excess of $25,000 to be competitively awarded unless written justification is provided, and would create a public database disclosing how much contractors spend on lobbying. Former Sen. John Edwards says he would root out waste and mismanagement at the Pentagon and require the government to hire only U.S. contractors.

On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would conduct a "top to bottom review of all government programs, agencies and procurement to eliminate waste and inefficiency," according to campaign spokesman Alex Burgos. Meanwhile, former Sen. Fred Thompson told an Iowa crowd in September, "We have an antiquated civil service system that was created in 1956. It doesn't apply anymore. It's tough to hire the kinds of people we need in this highly technical age to solve these problems." Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has proffered arguably the most comprehensive government reform package, including a detailed plan to boost federal pay, speed up firings, tighten acquisition regulations and link program funding to annual agency evaluations.

But McCain's plan, particularly his contention that civil service is a "no accountability zone, where employment is treated as an entitlement, good performance an option and accountability as someone else's problem" might not have gone over well with federal workers. More than 75 Government Executive readers posted comments about McCain's plan when it was first reported in late May, almost unanimously negative. Maybe he should have kept to a one-word answer.

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