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House moves to clean up contracting process

/ Source: The Associated Press

House Democrats, saying billions have been wasted in contracts for Katrina reconstruction and Iraq, offered legislation Thursday to clean up government contracting practices.

The White House protested the Accountability in Contracting Act, contending it would get in the way of administration efforts to make contracting more open and competitive.

Debate on the contracting bill follows passage Wednesday of four other open government bills, including one giving more protection to whistleblowers and another obliging federal agencies to be more responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests for information.

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., in support of the contracting bill, cited Defense Department auditor estimates that at least one out of six dollars spent in Iraq is suspect, including $2.7 billion in contracts awarded to Halliburton, a giant oil services company once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. She said post-Katrina contracts worth $8.75 billion have been plagued by waste, fraud and abuse.

But Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, characterized the legislation as “the triumph of politics over policy by attempting to taint every government contractor with the high-profile transgressions that only a few have done.”

The legislation would limit the awarding of no-bid contracts awarded in emergencies to one year, and requires agencies that spend more than $1 billion a year on federal contracts to implement plans to minimize use of sole-source contracts.

It also charges agencies with reducing the number of cost-plus contracts that leave the government vulnerable to wasteful spending and demands that contract overcharges in excess of $10 million be disclosed to Congress.

The bill sets limits on procurement officers dealing with their former or future employers in the private sector.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the federal government awards contracts worth $400 billion every year.

On Wednesday the House, with strong Republican support, passed four bills to make presidential and executive branch activities more transparent.

Two directly affect the president — with one requiring that contributors to the presidential library make their donations public and another overturning a directive by President Bush making it easier for current and former presidents to withhold their records from historians and the public.

‘Overly burdensome’
Another gives the public and the media more clout in getting sometimes-reluctant federal agencies to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The fourth expands whistle-blower protections, specifically for national security officials, airport screeners and government scientists who say they experience political pressure or retaliation because of their research.

Several Democrats said faulty intelligence before the invasion of Iraq might have been exposed if security officials had had better channels to reveal their misgivings.

The administration said it opposed the FOIA bill, arguing that the administration already was taking steps to streamline the often-delayed process of answering requests for information, and issued veto threats against the presidential records and whistle-blower bills.

The whistle-blower measure, it said, “could compromise national security, is unconstitutional and is overly burdensome and unnecessary.”

The Senate is already moving on the FOIA bill, with the Judiciary Committee holding hearings Wednesday on legislation offered by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The Senate also must consider the other bills before they can go to the president.

The open government theme was part of Sunshine Week, March 11-17, a three-year-old national initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.