House Passes Bill Aiming at Contract Accountability

The House voted to limit no-bid federal contracts Thursday, alleging abuses and citing huge losses in contracts for Katrina recovery and Iraq reconstruction.

The Accountability in Contracting Act was the last of five open government bills the House passed this week under new Democratic leaders critical of what they say has been the closed and secretive nature of the Bush administration.

The bill, which now goes to the Senate, passed 347-73

The White House opposed the contracting bill, as it did most of the other bills, saying it would complicate the administration's own efforts to make contracting more competitive.

Democrats cited figures showing that federal contracts have nearly doubled in the Bush years, to about $400 billion a year, and that sole-source contracts, where there is no competitive bidding, grew from $67 billion in 2000 to $145 billion in 2005.

"This surge in contract spending has enriched private contractors like Halliburton but it has come at a steep cost to taxpayers through rising waste, fraud and abuse and mismanagement," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Much of the criticism of no-bid contracts has been directed at Halliburton, a giant oil services company once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney that was given noncompetitive work to restore Iraq's oil production.

In addition, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., said post-Katrina contracts worth $8.75 billion have been proven wasteful and sometimes have included fraud.

The legislation would limit the awarding of no-bid contracts for emergencies to one year, and would require agencies that spend more than $1 billion a year on federal contracts to implement plans to minimize use of sole-source contracts.

It also would require agencies to reduce the number of "cost-plus" contracts that leave the government vulnerable to wasteful spending, and would require that contract overcharges in excess of $10 million be disclosed to Congress.

The bill sets limits on procurement officers dealing with their former or future employers in the private sector.

The administration said that would restrain the government's "ability to tap the technical expertise of federal employees who are former contractor employees." Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, top Republican on the Oversight Committee, also said it was unfair to "pass onerous restrictions based on the misdeeds of a handful of employees."

Davis succeeded in attaching to the bill a provision that would prohibit all government agencies from awarding contracts to institutions of higher learning that deny military recruitment on their campuses. Under current law, the ban applies only to contracts from the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and a few other agencies.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, denied that Republicans, when they were in power, failed to exercise oversight over Bush administration practices. He also defended some no-bid contracts, saying, "When you are fighting a war you need to move quickly ... you don't give a six-month appeal to the folks who lose competitions."

But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the contracting bill, along with four others passed Wednesday, signified that the "days of hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, are over. This Congress embraces its constitutional responsibility to conduct real, meaningful oversight."

Two measures directly affect the president. One would require that contributors to the presidential library make their donations public. The other would overturn a directive by President Bush making it easier for current and former presidents to withhold their records from historians and the public.

Another gives the public and the media more clout in getting sometimes-reluctant federal agencies to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The fourth expands whistle-blower protections, specifically for national security officials, airport screeners and government scientists who say they experience political pressure or retaliation because of their research.

All passed with strong Republican support, but the administration said it opposed the FOIA bill and issued veto threats on the presidential records and whistle-blower bills.

The whistle-blower measure, it said, "could compromise national security, is unconstitutional and is overly burdensome and unnecessary."