Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Government: How to Hand out Illegal Contracts in Five Easy Steps

Recently, there has been a lot of commotion over HUD Secretary Jackson's comment...

"Then he said something. . . . He said, 'I have a problem with your president.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President Bush. ' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect -- the president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the president, don't tell the secretary.' "He didn't get the contract," Jackson continued. "Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."

I've got news for everyone outside the Beltway. Jackson was saying something that who works in government already knows. He's just the first high level Republican official to say it out loud.

There is a long, convoluted selection process which would take me hours to explain. The complexity of the process works for them, as it gives them many opportunities to bend the rules their way. It works differently for grants and contracts, but here are the basics:

1) Companies hire former Republican political appointees. Their main job is to get new work. There is a "cooling off period" in which former appointees are not supposed to do this, but it is generally ignored. You can simply put the person in an advisory role, or not have them officially work with their former government office, even if that's all they do.

2) Before a funding opportunity is announced, current political appointees give an informal heads-up to their Republican friends and former co-workers. This gives them a few extra days, weeks, or even months to prepare for an announcement before the rest of the public. The application period is generally kept as short as possible, usually 30 days. So unless you have a team of professional application writers or were tipped off beforehand, you'll fail. This marginalizes small and medium sized organizations without political connections.

3) Applications are then scored. The panels that score applications and the chair people who run the process can be anyone with "relevant experience." While 80% of such panels tend to be civil servants and people with a lot of spare time in the summer (teachers, grad students) large, important, or otherwise cherry contracts are almost always scored by panelists with strong Republican ties.

4) A political appointee can choose who gets funded from any of the top scoring applications. Whenever possible, he chooses a company that hired former Republican officials and has donated to the Republican Party.

5) That political appointee retires after 2-4 years, going to work as a consultant for a company with business before the government. The process repeats itself.

This has gone on to some degree in every administration. The current administration has turned it into an art form, using even routine contracts for technocratic or maintenance work as an opportunity for political pork. They have also rapidly increased the rate of government outsourcing, to remove power from civil servants and create as many payback opportunities as possible. The end result is that crucial government services are often given to incompetent but well connected hacks. (See: Orleans, New). Civil servants who complain are marginalized and sometimes transferred, public interest groups are ignored.

It's disgusting and illegal. But there are few smoking guns, and even fewer chances to blow a whistle. They own both teams, referee the game, sell all the concessions, run security, own the ballpark, and gave themselves a tax subsidy to build it. We are merely spectators, or at best, bat boys.


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