All those consultants

There is a largely invisible extra branch of the federal government which employs thousands of persons, spends billions of taxpayer dollars, and which most Americans know very little about. Consultants and private contractors, in staggering and growing demand in Washington, have assumed so much of the work load in some federal departments and agencies that some members of Congress are concerned that these "hired helpers" actually seem to be running the government -- or, at least, key aspects of it.

Congressional testimony into what is coming to be recognized as a major problem on Capitol Hill disclosed, for instance, that 87 percent of the Department of Energy's $11 billion budget goes to outside consultants and contractors who, researchers say, are performing most of the department's basic work. Moreover, witnesses before joint Senate and House hearings testified that the Energy Department, with a staff of 21,000 workers of its own, has 10 times as many outsiders under contract -- 200,000 workers under 4,000 contracts.

The widespread use of consultants is hardly unique to the Energy Department. All across the board federal officials under budget pressure to hold down the size of their staffs have turned increasingly to private contractors for all sorts of research. Such agencies as the Transportation Department, the Labor Department, the Health and Human Services Department, and the Interstate Commerce Commission rely so heavily on nongovernment employees that some congressmen charge this has led to basic changes in the way the government operates. In some instances, they say, the proliferation of contracts seems to have left little for federal employees to do.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this trend is that private contractors are not held publicly accountable. They are not subject to the public disclosure provisions of the Freedom of Information Act as are civil servants. In those cases where an oil company, say, is hired to do independent research on a pollution or gasohol topic in which it has a vital economic stake, there is no law that requires the company to verify for Congress or the public that the research was not designed to serve the firm's own private interests. Conflicts of interest have been alleged in connection with a number of recent Department of Energy studies in particular. The DOE, unlike some other departments, does in fact require firms to report potential conflicts of interest but no follow-up investigation when those conflicts are present is required.

The Consultant Reform Act introduced in both houses of Congress this week would remedy such abuses by requiring federal agencies to maintain and produce for the public and Congress basic information on all contracts. (Surprisingly, record-keeping in some agencies was found to be so poor that officials could not produce copies of many contracts. In some instances contractors had even been hired to handle the awarding and dispersal of contracts to other firms and to write up their own contract assignments.) The act would close loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act that allows government contractors to keep their work confidential. And it would require public disclosure of any conflicts of interest in consulting firms.

Although the act fails to provide federal departments with guidelines for limiting the number of contracts and consultants, it would mandate that the information paid for by taxpayers be made available to the public. Federal agency heads themselves should exhibit greater restraint in using contractors to do work their own employees are capable of doing. At the very least, the public should be apprised of how this burgeoning arm of government works.

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