Congress seeks to codify post-Katrina contracting restrictions
Homeland Security announced Tuesday it has established a procurement control board to oversee and review contracts.
Amid repeated calls from lawmakers to prevent waste, fraud and abuse as it spends billions of dollars on hurricane relief and Gulf Coast reconstruction, the Bush administration began taking action this week in an apparent attempt to neutralize several congressional initiatives.
But many lawmakers from both parties still see the need for Congress to act legislatively to protect U.S. taxpayers.
The Homeland Security Department announced Tuesday that it established a procurement control board to oversee and review contracts for Hurricane Katrina relief. "The [department] has taken unprecedented actions to ensure procurement integrity is maintained during one of the largest recovery efforts in the nation's history," the department said in a statement. The department's inspector general's staff would conduct internal control reviews and contract audits.
The announcement followed action by the Office of Management and Budget Monday to repeal a $250,000 purchase limit on federal employee credit cards for emergency relief efforts. OMB, stung by investigative reports that have exposed past credit card abuses by federal employees, said it would roll back the hundred-fold increase to the previous $2,500 maximum.
While lawmakers Tuesday applauded the Bush administration's actions, they also argued that Congress must put safeguards into law.
"What the administration is doing is a good first step, but it is nowhere near as comprehensive or effective as the OVERSEE Act," said a spokesman for House Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Shadegg of Arizona, a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee. Shadegg is sponsoring legislation to create an independent chief financial officer who would oversee every agency involved in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and report directly to the president.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who authored a Senate companion bill and successfully pushed it through the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last month, plans to continue pressing for a floor vote, a Coburn aide said.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who proposed a reconstruction czar to oversee the government's efforts, said he appreciates the administration's efforts, but continues to believe that the administration still needs "one person who will work with the state and local governments."
And Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., say they have received support from other senators for their proposal to tap the special inspector general overseeing Iraq reconstruction to serve as federal watchdog for U.S. contracts along the Gulf Coast. "That individual would have the authority to provide oversight of all Katrina-related expenditures," said Collins' spokeswoman. Collins' legislation is still a priority, she added.
The higher $250,000 credit card limit, which OMB included in the recently enacted second emergency supplemental spending bill, drew sharp attacks from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. On Tuesday, his spokeswoman said Grassley would continue to press for a legislative repeal of the $250,000 limit because nothing prevents OMB from raising the limit for Katrina-related spending at any given time.
"We would still like to pass our legislation" to prevent OMB from raising the limit without notifying Congress and to reverse "the bad precedent set by passing the extraordinary limit increase in the first place," she said.
Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Friday they were building a bipartisan coalition to repeal the increase in the next emergency supplemental.