Managing the Government’s Wallet

GW Law professors call for stronger intergovernmental purchasing regulations on Capitol Hill.

February 08, 2010

Three GW Law professors testified before the U.S. Senate on flexible purchasing arrangements and government contract regulations Feb. 25.

Steven Schooner, associate professor of law and co-director of GW’s Government Procurement Law Program; Joshua Schwartz, E.K. Gubin Professor of Government Contracts Law and co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program; and Ralph Nash, professor emeritus of government contracts law, joined a panel to discuss inter-agency purchasing behaviors and offer recommendations for controls with the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight at the Dirksen Senate Office Building. 

GW’s Government Procurement Law Program, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is known globally as a leader in field.

According to Mr. Schooner, interagency contracting occurs when one agency purchases goods for another agency for a small fee. The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, has a centralized office that purchases fuels for the various defense agencies so that the department can benefit from the economies of scale, which Mr. Schooner believes makes sense. But many other agencies offer buying services to other agencies for a fee without demonstrable benefits to the government or the public. That and the current lack of controls, argues Mr. Schooner, could prove damaging to the public good.

These arrangements have become increasingly popular, he says. “Agencies are now buying for others without real, legitimate justification for doing so,” says Mr. Schooner, who also testified earlier in the day on the contracting workforce in front the House Armed Services Committee’s Defense Acquisition Reform Panel. “You have agencies trying to generate revenue in ways that are not directly correlated to the purpose Congress had created them for in first place. Some of us think the system breaks down when this happens.”

Government purchasing is a lucrative field. Last year, Mr. Schooner says the United States federal government and the European Union spent $530 billion and well over one trillion euros, respectively, on goods, services and construction. Interagency contracting also received a lot of attention in 2004 during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, says Mr. Schooner, when it was discovered contractors involved in the prison interrogations had been hired through interagency contracts without any management structure in place.

“There is some value in entrepreneurial efforts, as it's good for the government to be more flexible,” he says, “but basic oversight and management is very important.”

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