Lieberman, Collins warn against slashing acquisition workforce

Wednesday - 6/13/2012, 5:24am EDT

Sens. Lieberman and Collins speak to WFED's Jason Miller

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When the Defense Department shrunk in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, many in Congress, the executive branch and industry now say they went too far, especially with its acquisition workforce.

Even today, nearly 20 years later, the Pentagon and the government at-large continue to feel the effects of those mistakes.

"Too many people in acquisition were let go and their positions were not filled, but the acquisitions went on and it was basically a mismatch," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio as part of its week- long multimedia series, Inside the World's Biggest Buyer.

(Photo: Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee)

"The people in the acquisition divisions at federal agencies, there weren't enough of them, so they couldn't really review the procurements or the money that was being spent," he said.

Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member of the committee, are trying to ensure these past acquisition errors are not repeated during the current budget challenges.

"If we don't have a highly trained workforce that we can keep and that becomes very experienced, we will lose some value in the negotiations on federal contracts," Collins said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. "And yet too many members of Congress do not pay enough attention to workforce issues. They are absolutely critical. A talented, highly experienced contracting official can save taxpayers money and ensure we get the very best value."

Consequences of 1990s cuts clear

Lieberman said lawmakers on his two major committees, Homeland Security and Armed Services, seem to understand the need for a better-trained workforce, partly because the consequences of the 1990s cuts were clear.

"They weren't skilled enough to take on, in a fair and balanced meeting, the acquisition people in the private sector," Lieberman said. "I think this is just a question of those of us who care about both government spending and money being wasted and the increase in government contracting as part of the federal budget, just have to be very careful to make sure we are not balancing the budget on the backs of the acquisition workforce. The acquisition workforce is there to make sure when we give a dollar to a contractor that the government and taxpayers are getting a dollars worth of service."

Collins added some colleagues have admitted the reductions to the acquisition workforce were a pennywise, but a pound foolish. She said some legislators recognize the value of acquisition workers.

"We have to make sure that in this time of budget constraints, where we are shrinking budgets, we cut very carefully and we do not eviscerate the ability of managers and contracting officials to run programs as efficiently and effectively as possible," she said. "In the end, if you cut too deeply on personnel, you end up with ineffective programs and spending more money than you otherwise would."

Lieberman added Congress has to resist their desire to cut discretionary funds without understanding the short and long term effects.

"There is a natural tendency to just want to slash," he said. "But when you slash people who are reviewing contracts the federal government is making with the private sector, you are basically guaranteeing that you're going to be spending more money than the government should."

Laws improved federal procurement

Lieberman said federal acquisition is far from broken. He said there always is a lot of work to do, but there are plenty of success stories.

He said the Defense Department's program to build new attack submarines, called the Virginia Class, is coming in under budget and early.

"That proves we can do it," Lieberman said of meeting acquisition goals. "We have put in place some legislation to make the procurement process better."

Lieberman was referring to a variety of laws that he and Collins helped shepherd through the process, including the Service Acquisition Reform Act of 2003, provisions in the DoD authorization bill to increase competition among task orders, created a contingency contracting staff, granted the ability to protest task orders above a certain dollar level and provisions to improve federal procurement data.

As for the future, Collins said she is most concerned about the Obama administration's draft executive order to make political contributions part of a company's response to a government request for proposals.

"That is truly outrageous," she said. "The fact he is proposing the repeal of the prohibition that I worked so hard with a bi-partisan group of Senators to put into last year's bills is deeply troubling to me. That will certainly be a focus of mine."

RELATED STORIES:

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Congress amps up Federal Acquisition Institute's horsepower

QUICK LINKS:

Inside the World's Biggest Buyer (Main Page)

Part 1: Agency Acquisition

Part 2: Acquisition Workforce

Part 3: Acquisition Oversight