WASHINGTON -- The government bought more than half of its products and services last year without bidding or with practices that auditors say do not fully shop the marketplace, an Associated Press analysis of contracting records found.
While such shopping accelerated in President Bush's first year, it has been on the rise since the 1990s when the Clinton administration and the GOP-controlled Congress streamlined purchasing under its "reinventing government" initiatives.
Some of those well-intentioned efforts to cut red tape -- epitomized by Al Gore's smashing of a government-issued ashtray on television -- may have gone too far, inviting new risks of fraud, contracting experts and watchdogs say.
"Scandals are coming," predicted Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor who spent a decade investigating contractor abuses as a House lawyer.
"You can see them coming as clearly as you could in the early 1980s looking at the defense buildup then and the lack of safeguards."
In all, the government bought $123 billion of its $230 billion in goods and services in 2001 without bids or with methods that auditors say are frequently used to bypass competition, the computer analysis found.
Everything from computers and office supplies to background investigations of federal workers and education services were bought that way.
Concerns about the government's new-style shopping are simply put: buying without competition often means the public treasury gets overcharged.
A Pentagon review, for example, found the prices paid for commercially available spare parts bought without competition increased more than twice as fast between 1993 and 2000 as did prices for similar parts purchased competitively.
At the Department of Education last year, auditors demanded repayment of 80 percent of the $9.7 million in federal money spent under a contract the Puerto Rico Department of Education awarded without competition for the operation of elementary school learning centers.
Congress enacted legislation in 1984 requiring full and open competition for all government purchases except in special cases, such as utilities with only one supplier or weapons systems made by just one company.
But critics say the contracting reforms of the 1990s, coupled with a government-wide reduction of contracting officers and auditors, have made it easier to bypass bidding.
With fewer buyers and less oversight, "nobody is looking over their shoulders," said George Washington University professor Steven Schooner, who monitors the federal contracting system.