In today’s Advocate (the daily in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette), I update a story about the struggle to overturn a probably erroneous administrative interpretation of competing laws related to military procurement. For several years, the Defense Department and the General Services Administration have been giving preference, for basic supplies such as wet mops and laundry detergent, to foreign providers supposedly operating from nations where our troops are stationed, in the place of American agencies that employ large numbers of workers with various disabilities. A bipartisan, multi-state coalition of House and Senate members is trying to overturn the administrative ruling. It’s crucial that they succeed:
At issue is a longstanding federal program called Ability One. It awards military contracts to nonprofits that hire disabled workers who manufacture (or repackage to exacting military specifications) basic items — such as mess trays and massive rolls of paper towels — at cost-effective prices. . . . The New Orleans Lighthouse for the Blind is among the major suppliers supplanted by [the newer program that gives priority to foreign suppliers]. But this is far from a Louisiana-specific issue. There are 596 Ability One agencies nationwide, with at least one in each of the 48 mainland states, employing more than 50,000 people. For agencies for the blind alone, 14 of them in nine states produce at least 24 separate military products ranging from duct tape to trash bags to hand sanitizer. [House majority whip Steve] Scalise of Louisiana drafted and convinced the House to pass an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to make clear that [the foreign-supply program’s] preference for suppliers in lands where our troops are stationed applies only to products not supplied by Ability One programs. In other words, the items produced by disabled Americans would again take precedence.
Louisiana’s David Vitter, a staunch conservative, wants to introduce a similar amendment to the Senate defense bill, which may be called up to the Senate floor tomorrow. Also firmly in his corner is New York liberal senator Chuck Schumer. Indeed, the National Industries for the Blind (NIB) lists 29 senators and dozens of House members of both parties as “Ability One champions.” All of these numbers should help dispel a false impression apparently prevalent in some Capitol Hill circles that Ability One is merely a parochial program.
It’s also worth noting that, as I and Jim McElhatton reported last year in the Washington Times, the law that instead gives a degree of preference for foreign suppliers — apparently partly intended for diplomacy, partly to induce the locals in those countries to keep supply lanes open, and partly as a sort of reconstruction aid — has very little effective oversight, so that sometimes it appears as if the foreign entities claiming to be the suppliers are mere middlemen, not manufacturers. In short, what may be intended as a program to benefit Afghanis may well be one actually benefiting a Chinese conglomerate acting through an Afghani front.
There are no such concerns about Ability One. It’s been working well for the military, American taxpayers, and otherwise-disabled American workers since 1938.
“With the the unemployment rate for people who are blind at 70 percent, having a situation like this that directly affects their employment certainly has negative implications,” said Kevin Lynch, president and CEO of the NIB, told me this week. “We oppose the General Services Administration process whereby Ability One products made by people are blind were substituted with products sourced through Central Asia, despite the Ability One mandate.”
Last summer, I interviewed several workers at the New Orleans Lighthouse. I’ll leave the last word to one of them, Sybil Mikell, a 30-year veteran of a program that provides mess trays for our troops: “I love my job. I love the fact that I can compete, that I can leave my house and go to work like everyone else. My job has provided income for my family. I raised four children since I came here [with her income plus her husband’s]. But when I was laid off [for 18 months when the new supply initiative took precedence], I didn’t know what to do or where to go next. Then my husband took sick and had to go to the hospital. I was just hoping and praying that something would get better.”
Scalise’s amendment, or a Senate version thereof, would certainly make things better — and probably better serve the military, too.