The high price of government corruption

Monday, April 8, 2002

Use of competitive bids in government spending has long been held up as a necessary safeguard against preferential treatment and other underhanded schemes involving taxpayers' money.

But such bidding requirements have been the target of barbs as well. One common punch line: Government relies on equipment and goods provided by the lowest bidder -- meaning, the items and services that cost the least might also be the shoddiest.

Another criticism of government purchasing has been some of the ridiculous bid specs so complicated and precise that even competitive bidding has resulted in exorbitant prices. Remember the hammers and toilet seats that cost hundreds of dollars?

In an effort to reduce government bureaucracy, streamline operations and, it was hoped, save money, Congress and the Clinton administration set about to reinvent government.

Along the way, many government agencies were given the OK to purchase many consumables without bids, particularly when going to a local retail store to buy toilet paper or ballpoint pens meant spending less than purchasing the same items through the burdensome process of government bidding.

A recently released study shows some of the leeway under reinvented government may have gone too far. Last year, the federal government purchased more than half of its goods and services without bidding or under practices that auditors say didn't take full advantage of the marketplace.

In the process, the report says, there were many instances of overcharging. As a matter of fact, the study found that prices for items purchased without bids rose twice as fast as prices for goods bought through competitive bids.

As might be expected, some officials and legislators are calling for tighter clamps on purchasing practices by the federal government. Indeed, some refining may be needed.

But what needs to be addressed most is the corruption that accompanies government spending -- regardless of the controls that are in place.

Even under the stricter rules that were in place until government was reinvented, millions -- no, probably billions -- of dollars were spent on deals designed to favor one supplier or on deals that involved kickbacks and other special treatment.

If, as the study suggests, the Puerto Rico Department of Education mishandled federal funds used for learning centers, go after the officials who were responsible.

What the reinventors of government have learned is that there will be corruption no matter what system is adopted to prevent it. Swift prosecution of those who abuse the leeway granted in recent years would be one incentive to promote honesty and adherence to the sprit of streamlined government.

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