Senate passes bill to increase competition in contracting

Unanimously passed legislation would limit length of noncompetitive contracts.

The Senate unanimously passed legislation Thursday aimed at increasing competition and accountability in federal contracting.

The Accountability in Government Contracting Act (S. 680), sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. and Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, would limit the length of certain sole-source contracts to 270 days. This restriction would apply to noncompeted contracts awarded under the "urgent and compelling need" justification.

The bill also creates a Contingency Contracting Corps of trained and experienced acquisition personnel to respond in emergencies, in an effort to reduce waste, fraud and abuse caused by poorly structured or managed emergency contracts.

The bill also mandates increased competition for task and delivery orders under multiple-award contracts. Agencies would be required to compete all such orders over $100,000, and provide more detailed statements of work and post-award debriefings for orders over $5 million.

Lieberman and Collins have said these provisions are necessary because while federal contracting dollars have almost doubled since 2000, the number of contracts awarded under full and open competition has dropped to below 50 percent.

"Government spending on contracts has exploded, while the trained workforce that oversees them has shrunk," Lieberman and Collins said in a joint statement.

The legislation aims to beef up the acquisition workforce by creating training and intern programs, requiring chief acquisition officers to develop human capital succession plans and creating a new assistant administrator for acquisition workforce programs in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

"By increasing the competencies and skills and numbers of our acquisition workforce, we will also ensure that the amount of waste and abuse will be reduced and the taxpayer's dollars better spent," Collins stated.

"This bill is a positive and serious effort to address the root causes of the government's challenges with acquisition," said Stan Soloway, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Professional Services Council, which represents contractors. "Workforce issues are at the heart of everything these days, and the chairman and ranking member recognize this, to their credit."

Soloway also lauded the legislation's focus on increased communication between government and contractors. The bill would require agencies to fix key contract terms such as price, scope or schedule within either 180 days or before a certain percentage of the work is done. It also would require agencies to publish notices explaining all sole-source task and delivery orders above a certain threshold.

While PSC has several minor concerns about the legislation -- including a provision that would allow protests of task orders over $5 million -- the association by and large supports the bill. Soloway said council members would like a higher threshold for protests to avoid unnecessary risk and cost, but said that even as passed, the legislation would not "significantly disrupt the system."

"Collins and Lieberman had a hearing [before introducing the bill] that was totally focused on making the system better. It wasn't a 'gotcha' hearing, and this is a very thoughtful piece of legislation," Soloway said.

Committee spokeswoman Jen Burita said discussions with the House about the legislation have begun but it is not clear yet if it will be discussed in conference committee along with a similar bill, the Accountability in Contracting Act (H.R. 1362), written by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.. That bill passed the House overwhelmingly in March.

Waxman's bill also aims to limit the length of sole-source contracts and would mandate a formal study of the acquisition workforce, but it focuses more on contract oversight than increasing competition.