Memo to Congress: Open a Wider Window on Contractors

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With the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Federal Housing Administration and the Treasury combining to promise trillions (as much as $7.7 trillion to be precise, but who, other than Bloomberg News, is counting?) with little or no transparency or disclosure for the bulk of the money, it’s easy to lose sight of the relative nickels and dimes doled out in contracts awarded by federal agencies to private firms — all $430 billion of it.

The extent to which contractors interact with government is breathtaking — to give on example, the army field manual setting forth the rules contractors must abide by on the battlefield was written by Military Professional Resources Inc., a government contractor. And abuses in the system have been well-documented: Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham went to jail for steering federal contracts in exchange for bribes; Darleen Druyun, an Air Force procurement officer, earned her prison stripes by swinging a sweetheart tanker deal for Boeing before leaving the Pentagon for a sweetheart job with…Boeing.

Sites like FedSpending.org and the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database bring a little transparency and accountability to the process, but there’s far more information that Congress should require that the federal government provide.

Once upon a time, contractors had to publicly disclose when they went outside the normal procurement process and hired lobbyists to attempt to win contracts. Bringing back those disclosures (which required lobbyists to list those they were meeting with on behalf of clients) and integrating those disclosures with the data available on USASpending.gov (FedSpending’s less robust government cousin) would be one place to start. Clearly identifying which contracts satisfy presidential and congressional earmarks would be useful as well. Linking up contract awards in USASpending with archived solicitation notices in FedBizOpps, the government’s official contracting opportunities database, would also provide the public with a fuller picture of what the government is buying. (In USASpending, a Blackwater State Department contract is described as being for “protective services – Iraq.” Fedbizopps provides somewhat more detail on what a security contract might entail.)

Government can’t do its work without contractors — everything from the security of State Department officials to answering requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act have been outsourced. But government can require more transparency from contractors and the federal agencies they work for — keeping them open keeps the system honest.

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