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Unions find surprise ally in fight against outsourcing: Republicans

Jun. 26, 2013 - 12:40PM   |  
By JIM McELHATTON   |   Comments

For years, Congress has banned agencies from holding public-private competitions for federal work for possible outsourcing — but every year, the contentious issue comes up again as Republicans attempt to overturn the ban.

“This is our hardy perennial in the sense that Republicans bring up amendments to strike prohibitions on an annual basis,” said John Threlkeld, lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees, which has vigorously opposed overturning the ban.

But this year, a proposed amendment in the defense authorization bill to open up public-private competitions was defeated by the House on June 14, after a surprising number of Republicans sided with union-backed Democrats seeking to uphold the ban.

In fact, during the eight-minute floor debate June 13, three Republicans spoke against the amendment and only two spoke for it, including the sponsor, Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va.

“We lost votes in 2011, and we started winning them in 2012 and that’s carried over to 2013,” Threlkeld said.

This year, more than 50 Republicans voted against the Rigell amendment, which Threlkeld called the biggest margin he can recall.

“What we were particularly pleased about is the extent of Republican opposition,” he said.

For those who spoke out against the measure on the Republican side, the concerns largely centered on the impact of public-private competitions on federal employees at depots and military installations in their home districts. Such competitions are known as A-76 competitions because they are conducted under rules outlined in OMB Circular A-76.

Rep. Christopher Stewart, R-Utah, called the A-76 process “a flawed process that leads to a flawed result.”

Fellow Utah Republican Rob Bishop said overturning the ban would “affect the quality of military equipment.”

And Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said the idea should be “dead and buried.”

Ultimately, the proposal failed 248-178.

The House ultimately passed the defense authorization bill.

The Senate version of the bill was passed the same day, June 14, by the Senate Armed Services Committee. That bill includes a provision calling on the Pentagon to review sharp increases in defense contractor pension costs — one of several acquisition-related provisions in the bill. The provision calls on the Pentagon to assess the “reasonableness” of contractor pension plans, mirroring a recommendation from a Government Accountability Office report in January.

The GAO report found pension costs reported by the 10 largest defense contractors grew by more than 10 times in the last decade — from less than $500 million in 2002 to more than $5 billion in 2011, although not all of the costs were allocated to defense contracts.

The pension provision is just one of several items relating to acquisition in the committee’s markup.

The bill also directs the Pentagon to determine whether its acquisition program managers are sufficiently trained. A committee report cited a 2009 Pentagon review that found less than 35 percent of senior acquisition program managers believed their training was sufficient in areas such as overseeing contractor performance and cost control.

Shay Assad, the Pentagon’s director of pricing, said in a recent interview with Federal Times that the department is planning to assess the competency of the contracting workforce this fall. The results will be compared with a similar assessment conducted about five years ago, he said.

“We’ve made a tremendous investment in this workforce,” Assad said. “They’re more capable; they’re more competent.”

The planned review “will enable us to measure in a real way how much better we really got,” he said. “I’m very excited to see the results.”

The bill calls on the GAO to review DoD’s acquisition process for major weapons systems.

It says the Pentagon should account for the “health of the United States helicopter industry” in building its budget request. That provision comes as DoD is under criticism from lawmakers over plans to buy Russian helicopters for Afghan security forces.

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