Politics & Policy

NOAA’s Ark

Competitive sourcing dies with a whimper.

Last Tuesday, without discussion, the House voted 308-60 to authorize a new ship for an obscure government agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to use in hydrographic surveying — that is, for mapping the ocean floor.

Over the last decade, NOAA has been repeatedly warned and scolded by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and various inspectors general to start contracting out its mapping work, and to charter its vessels from the private sector instead of buying new ones. NOAA’s proposed new ship, which replaces a retiring one, costs a mere $75 million. But the ease of its House passage is a sign that conservatives have let momentum die for private outsourcing of such government work.

#ad#“This administration really could have done more,” said Brian Johnson, the privatization specialist at Americans for Tax Reform. “There are several services the government retains today that are really non-governmental.”

At the beginning of the Bush presidency, the administration enthusiastically embraced and fought for competitive sourcing. Bush’s first budget director, Mitch Daniels, issued a revised version of a Reagan-era OMB Circular to that end. “To ensure that the American people receive maximum value for their tax dollars,” it reads, “commercial activities should be subject to the forces of competition.”

The 63-page document, which exempts the military in time of war or mobilization, urges federal agencies to outsource jobs that are not “inherently governmental” and lays down guidelines for doing so. In the past, this practice has created significant savings — there is no reason, for example, to pay lawn crews and janitorial staffs government-union salaries and pensions, when a private company could do the work for less.

This principle can also be applied to more complex jobs. Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation, who worked in the Reagan White House’s privatization office, offered cartography as an example. In 1999, he bought a United States Geological Survey (USGS) map of his town while writing a white paper on competitive sourcing. The map “was not an accurate reflection of the Fredericksburg area,” he wrote. In fact, it was a 1963 map with additions that had been superimposed in 1983.

“If I’d used the government map to find the hospital, I would have ended up at the Chamber of Commerce,” Utt told National Review Online. He then went to the nearest gas station and bought a cheaper map made by a private company, which was both accurate and up to date.

Indeed, most of the USGS maps available today are badly out of date. It is not hard to see how private companies, which already do a better job, could take over this function.

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The benefits of privatization have been well documented — not only on the federal level, where it saves billions of dollars per year within various agencies, but in state and local government as well. It obviates the need for tax increases or greater government borrowing.

Unfortunately, the administration’s ardor for this cause has waned in the face of pushback from government employees and unions. “The intensity of the debate is not what it was ten years ago,” said Utt. “It’s simply viewed as something that creates more opposition than not.”

#ad#Competitive sourcing is rarely discussed anymore, except when congressional Democrats, at the urging of public-sector unions, attempt to erode gains already made. Both of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates want the government to perform more non-governmental tasks. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) told an enthusiastic crowd of unionists in Nevada last February that she would eliminate half a million private contractors. She promised $8 to $10 billion in savings, failing to account for the far-greater offsetting costs that government would incur.

In NOAA’s case, the push toward privatization crested toward high tide in 1994, when the Government Accounting Office (GAO) produced a 26-page report aptly titled “NOAA Needs to Consider Alternatives to the Acquisition of New Vessels.” The report notes that the GAO, Congress, and even Vice President Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government” initiative had all recommended a greater reliance on private contractors for mapping and chartering private ships. The report scolds NOAA for failing to take the idea seriously and instead demanding money for ten new ships. It frowns upon the agency’s submission of comparative proposals that were skewed in order to make contracting appear as undesirable and expensive as possible.

There already exists a significant and sophisticated private hydrographic-mapping industry, which has been assisting the Army Corps of Engineers in their work for years. But NOAA’s civil servants resisted private contracting for years, literally unwilling to “give up the ship.” The agency privatized some functions, but it never went as far as it should, for fear of threatening the agency’s Uniformed Corps — a well-paid and anachronistic service complete with commissars, admirals, and military commissary privileges. “It’s an extremely small and expensive service that is performing what are essentially commercial functions,” says Utt. “But it’s good work, and they’ve fought aggressively to maintain that. NOAA has support groups and professional associations. The minute one of these [privatization] proposals comes up, they flood the Hill with lobbyists and advocates.”

For this reason, many of the 1994 proposals remain unrealized 14 years later, and the purchase of the new $75 million vessel continues the status quo. “Congress is making big investments in their future,” said Utt. “We’re going to keep paying them, and we’re going to give them fancier ships.”

The ship’s future in the Senate remains unclear. But whether NOAA gets its ark or not, the push for further privatization of government has clearly ebbed. Democrats are waiting in the wings, eager to roll it back.

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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