The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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Zachary Hubbard

February 24, 2014

Zachary Hubbard | Federal contracting system broken, out of control

JOHNSTOWN — I’ve been feeling surly. It started several weeks ago when Congress passed legislation making large cuts in the annual cost-of-living pay adjustments for active and retired military personnel.

The decision was a clear betrayal of trust and has since been reversed due to voter outrage. The military is still considering other types of cuts affecting active service members, such as eliminating tuition assistance, closing recreation centers and closing stateside commissaries, to name a few.

I recall going through some austere times while I was serving in the Army, especially during the early 1980s. We reduced field training to cut back on fuel, maintenance and ammunition costs. Reduced training means reduced readiness. We drove vehicles missing doors, windshields and canvas tops because there was no money for nonessential spare parts. We even turned off security lighting on military installations to save on electricity costs.

It’s too bad Congress doesn’t take a similar approach to saving. It could start by reducing its own pay, since legislators hardly accomplish anything. Of course, this is highly unlikely, so perhaps they could try reforming the broken federal contracting system.

Each year, the federal government spends billions of dollars via thousands of contracts. The system for managing federal procurements is a cumbersome, bureaucratic mess. It is fraught with inefficiencies and highly vulnerable to fraud. Federal contracting never sleeps. According to the NextGov.com website, during last year’s federal government shutdown, the Navy and Air Force awarded contracts valued at a combined $4.8 billion.

According to a New York Times article on Jan. 15, the federal government awarded $460 billion in contracts in 2013. While the amount was down by 11 percent from 2012, it is still a massive amount of taxpayer dollars.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally opposed to federal contracting. Many of the contracts are for good causes, particularly federal-led research in the fields of energy production and health sciences. There are also essential contracts supporting the day-to-day services that keep the government running, like food and beverage purchases, trash collection and utility bills. Certain contracts related to defense and homeland security are also highly valuable, as are many others.

Unfortunately, many federal contracts amount to nothing less than squandering your tax dollars.

The government operates a Federal Business Opportunities website (www.fbo.gov) listing its contracting needs. Searching through the database of contracts awarded around the national capital region during 2013, I found some real eyebrow raisers.

While none of the award amounts listed is staggering, thousands upon thousands of small awards add up to big bucks. Here are a few examples:

-- The General Services Administration (GSA) paid $102,000 for two sport utility vehicles. The solicitation for these vehicles stated they must be equivalent to a Cadillac SRX model. Nice! The GSA also awarded an art researcher a five-year contract for $662,000 to inventory and catalog art works owned by the GSA.

-- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration paid $54,000 for seven sets of banners to fly on 12 flagpoles in front of its headquarters. The banner sets, which will be rotated throughout the year, are intended to remind employees of the various themes of the safety campaigns run by the administration. When I was in the Army, we hung posters in the hallways as reminders. The contract even pays the contractor to rotate the banners and store those sets not being used.

-- The Army Contracting Command paid $29,000 for an oil-on-canvas portrait of the Secretary of the Army. The painting was to be displayed at the Pentagon. I suppose a photo portrait from Sears just wouldn’t do.

-- The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. paid $12,000 for a two-year “music-on-hold” contract. You know, it’s the music that plays when someone places your phone call on hold for an hour. Couldn’t the government use a standard message for phones on hold, like “Please pay your taxes on time so we can get more of your money for buying stuff we don’t need”?

For those who missed out on the aforementioned contract awards, there are many more opportunities on the horizon. Here are a few examples of contracts offered. Perhaps some can be justified, but is anyone in a position of authority even questioning these requirements?

-- The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has an urgent need for over 2,000 bottles of human breast milk.Whatever happened to baby formula?

-- The Department of Labor needs a contractor to repair a historic rock wall at the Job Corps center in Marion, Va. It seems that the center is located in an 1873 building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps it’s time to find a new building.

-- The Library of Congress needs 12 public pay phones installed in various lobbies. Do people still use pay phones since the government began giving away free cellphones?

-- The library’s Office of Special Events needs a contractor capable of performing monthly maintenance on an elevator tent. Does anybody even know what that is? My Google search for “elevator tent” came up with nothing.

-- The U.S. Department of Education needs hotel rooms to accommodate 650 guests for two nights and 45 guests for one night in the Washington, D.C., area. It also requires meeting space for 800 persons for two days. All is required to host the National Blue Ribbons Schools Awards Ceremony. Why not send the individual awards to the respective states where the designated Blue Ribbon schools are located? Let the states handle the awards ceremonies.

I could continue, but space constraints preclude it. Did this article make you angry? If so, let your elected officials on Capitol Hill know – voter opinions matter! If not, visit www.fbo.gov and learn more. Reforming the broken federal contracting system could save billions and just might help pay for the many essential needs that are presently unfunded.

 

Zachary Hubbard, formerly of Johnstown, is a freelance writer and retired Army officer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

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