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Privatizing a Cut of the Public Sector | The Nation

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Privatizing a Cut of the Public Sector

The privatization of the federal government during the Bush administration has snowballed to the point that the work of private contractors is evaluated by other private contractors. A report released today by the Government Accountability Office shows that the Department of Homeland Security [DHS], for example, is contracting out what GAO official John Hutton calls "inherently government functions" such as deciding the Department's policies and regulations and monitoring its effectiveness.

But according to Senate testimony by Hutton and Steven Schooner, the Co-Director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University, the Department of Homeland Security is not the only case of a privatized public sector. "The government currently has no short-term choice but to rely upon contractors for every conceivable task that it is understaffed to fulfill," Schooner told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

These tasks, Schooner said, vary from Hairston Construction building the houses for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina to Blackwater patrolling Iraq. Schooner argued that either there has to be a "massive expansion of the federal workforce or we constrain the very ambitions of government." Committee chair Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said Schooner's testimony was on the money. He then gave his own examples of contracting waste and fraud in the U.S. Air Forces like having the contractor Commonwealth Research Institute arrange a no-show job for a senior officer.

Maine Republican Susan Collins added that government needs to stop "awarding, huge non-competitive contracts every time a disaster strikes."

Government's independent watchdog group, a private contracting expert and two centrist Senators say contracting has spiraled out of control and harmed government competence. But do the agencies themselves defend what they're doing?

Not really. Elaine Duke, the Chief Procurement Officer at DHS, said she generally agreed with the GAO's damning report. Duke admitted to Collins that handing out no-bid contracts to deal with post-Katrina housing and then immediately extending those contracts was a mistake. And she promised to reduce the percent of no-bid contracts the agency gives to zero. It is currently 35 percent.

But the hearing made clear that the government lacks the money or political will to reverse the privatizing trend accelerated by the Bush administration. At some point, Schooner argued, Congress needs to do more than grill the DHS. "Congress has been quick to get more GAO and Inspector General reports," he said. "They need to devote more resources to hire civil servants."

Schooner predicted this will only happen when Congress and the public give contractors the same bad rap they give "big government." Such a development could be well on its way.

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