Procurement reform tussle will continue on House floor

House Republicans and Democrats will take their procurement reform fight to the House
floor, and a lively battle seems inevitable. The House Government Reform and Oversight
Committee last month approved Rep. William F. Clinger Jr.'s procurement bill, but only
after the Pennsylvania Republican assured committee Democrats they could offer amendments
during floor debate. The House is expected to vote on the bill next month, committee staff
members said.


What's the source of the dispute? The winnowing out of bidders for government
contracts. Clinger, the committee's chairman, wants to replace the full-and-open
competition standard created by the 1984 Competition in Contracting Act with what he calls
an ""open access threshold.''


Under the Clinger scenario, agencies still would accept bids from all interested
vendors. But contracting officials would have more authority to weed out offers they
consider nonresponsive and eliminate unqualified bidders immediately from the pool of
contenders.


Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), the committee's ranking minority member, called the
change unnecessary. She said she would offer an amendment to restore the full-and-open
competition standard to the bill.


Although Clinger has made some changes in his bill since he introduced it, the revamped
bill reiterates the original version's call for granting agency contracting officers
greater discretion to determine the field of qualified bidders.


Clinger's bill would retain the existing criteria for awarding sole-source contracts
and require agencies to justify, in writing, their use of limited-competition procedures.


As for revamping bid protests, Clinger has backed off his call for a single federal
protest tribunal. The approved bill proposes establishing two administrative protest
boards that would use one set of simplified procedures.


""We all share a common objective, and that is to get more competition. But
we've seen less and less of it because the rigid procedures discourage procurement
officers and bidders,'' Clinger said. ""We're dramatically changing the
language, but not in a way to limit, restrict or preclude competition.''


Nonetheless, several Democratic committee members balked at the subtle changes in the
bill, complaining that Clinger reworked his proposal without holding more hearings.


Some of those members also charged that anything less than a full-and-open standard
would hurt small businesses by giving contracting officers an excuse to negotiate only
with large companies.


""We know from experience that if we allow bureaucrats to limit competition,
they will,'' Collins said. ""We may be creating a large loophole. We have held
no new hearings, and the affected businesses have not been heard from.''


Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) agreed and added that Clinger's bill is too vague on
how agencies would apply the new standard.


""The current standard creates seven statutory exceptions to full-and-open
competition. This legislation creates two new exceptions--feasible or appropriate,'' she
said. ""I find these troubling because there is no statutory guidance as to how
these exceptions are to be applied.''


Clinger, however, defended his revisions, maintaining that he had consulted extensively
with industry groups, small-business leaders and agency procurement officials to find the
right mix of streamlining and regulatory enforcement.


""This bill has been vetted by big business, small business, trade
associations and everyone affected. We've talked with everyone who might have an
interest,'' he said. ""I'm satisfied that the change in the standard is good and
that it will stand the test of time.''


Despite their objections, Collins, Maloney and other Democrats agreed to report
Clinger's revised bill out of committee in exchange for a chance to offer amendments
before a full House vote.


More debate is all but certain. Collins earlier this year derailed Clinger's attempt to
get the reforms in HR 1670 tagged onto the 1996 Defense authorization bill. After the
House approved the addition, Collins had the reforms replaced with her own amendment to
restore the full-and-open competition standard [GCN, June 19, Page 89].


No similar legislation has been taken up in the Senate. The Senate Governmental Affairs
Committee has various bills under consideration that touch on issues in the Clinger bill,
but none is as comprehensive.


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