AFL-CIO union chief questions High Road contracting policy

Gautham Nagesh Contributor
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The head of the largest union representing federal workers has added his voice to those questioning the the White House’s soon-to-be-unveiled High Road contracting policy. The president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, recently questioned the wisdom of using the procurement process as a tool of social policy, a blow for the proposal’s supporters in the organized labor movement.

The Daily Caller first reported in February that the administration was considering giving preference to contractors that pay their hourly workers higher wages and provide additional benefits such as sick days and health insurance. Documents and sources later confirmed the White House is planning to unveil the series of proposals, dubbed the “High Road contracting policy,” at the urging of groups such as the Center for American Progress and the Service Employees International Union.

The policy would dramatically alter the way federal contracts are awarded with far-reaching consequences for the private sector, particularly in the construction industry. Proponents argue the changes would benefit hourly workers on federal contracts, who they contend are often paid poverty-level wages. Critics fear the new labor standards process would become a de facto screening process designed to benefit unionized companies.

However, in a letter dated March 23 to Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag, AFGE President John Gage expressed concern about the “High Road” proposal, noting that it could “significantly increase subjectivity and politics in federal procurement.” AFGE is the largest union representing federal workers, with more than 600,000 members worldwide. In his letter Gage argued the High Road proposal should not apply to any functions that currently or in the future may be performed by federal employees and questions expanding federal preferences for certain contractors.

“The various preferences for small businesses that ‘High Road’ proponents cite as precedents for rewarding a certain class of contractors are in fact riddled with fraud and often ultimately benefit ineligible businesses that act as subcontractors,” Gage wrote. “Finally, as proponents now acknowledge, there are no jurisdictions at the state or local levels that use a process similar to the one proposed by ‘High Road’ proponents.”

While Gage’s comments are striking coming from a prominent labor leader, they echo the concerns of numerous observers within the federal procurement community. Contracting experts have argued the new award process would be highly opaque and open to corruption and favoritism. Al Burman, a top federal procurement official under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush said any such changes would add to the burden of an already overtaxed procurement work force.

“We’ve already got issues with an understaffed contracting corps. They’re just trying to keep their heads above water,” Burman said, pointing out that the federal government has seen a huge increase in funding during the last 10 years but the acquisition work force has remained the same size. President Obama has proposed increasing the acquisition work force by 5 percent but that change could take years to implement given the federal government’s lengthy recruitment and hiring process.

Several observers have said the High Road policy is also notable in that it attempts to use federal procurement as a tool of social policy, opening the door to further politicization of the federal buying process. In addition to the unions, the bipartisan group of senators, including Joe Lieberman, Collins and Tom Coburn, that normally collaborates on contracting and other good government efforts would likely oppose any legislation that attempts to implement High Road policies. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut has said she may introduce a High Road bill if the White House does not introduce the policy in the coming weeks.

Burman believes most of the High Road polices could be implemented without any legislative action but said the normal process would include collecting input from a variety of sources, holding hearings and allowing time to review possible unintended consequences. Orszag assured Collins personally last month that her office would be briefed before any changes are introduced.

“I would think that with something like [the High Road policy] that would be a major shift in how government does contracting, it would require some clear analysis that demonstrates the benefits of [the proposal],” Burman said.

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