Vanity Fair Scrutinizes a Top Government Contractor


As they so often are able to do, investigative journalists Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, writing for Vanity Fair, offer both a sense of the scale and the substance of the issues raised by the federal government’s increasing reliance on contractors.

It is a simple fact of life these days that, owing to a deliberate decision to downsize government, Washington can operate only by paying private companies to perform a wide range of functions. To get some idea of the scale: contractors absorb the taxes paid by everyone in America with incomes under $100,000. In other words, more than 90 percent of all taxpayers might as well remit everything they owe directly to SAIC or some other contractor rather than to the IRS. In Washington these companies go by the generic name “body shops”—they supply flesh-and-blood human beings to do the specialized work that government agencies no longer can. Often they do this work outside the public eye, and with little official oversight—even if it involves the most sensitive matters of national security. The Founding Fathers may have argued eloquently for a government of laws, not of men, but what we’ve got instead is a government of body shops.

The article goes on to profile Science Applied International Corporation, or SAIC, among the top ten government contractors, and how they do business with the federal government–relying on agency records, court filings, and whistleblowers. It’s an amazingly revealing piece of work.

So where’s Congress in all this? I couldn’t help noticing that it appears that the company has lobbied Congress over various appropriations bills–it seems like it would be worth it to find out if SAIC is also lobbying Congress over specific contracting issues. Which means that I’ll be sending out a few more FOIA requests as we continue to pursue Form SF-LLL, which contractors must file “for each payment or agreement to make payment to any lobbying entity for influencing or attempting to influence an officer or employee of any agency, a Member of Congress, an officer or employee of Congress, or an employee of a Member of Congress in connection with a covered Federal action” — with “covered Federal action” meaning the awarding of a contract or a grant.

UPDATE: Yikes, forgot to add the full disclosure–I had the pleasure of working for Barlett and Steele as a researcher on a 1996 Philadelphia Inquirer series they did that was also published as a book, America: Who Stole the Dream?, which looked at American Trade, Tax and Immigration policy and its effect on the middle class. It’s amazing how many of the issues they raise in that book are as relevant (and unaddressed) today as they were then. But then, I’m biased…