Government contracting has always been a complex matter, thick with legal wrangling and bureaucracy, but the last decade has seen a radical change in how the U.S. government purchases goods and services.
At one time, federal agencies constructed buildings, built machines and cleaned offices themselves, or found another agency to do it. Today, the U.S. government spends some $200 billion a year buying everything from information technology services to pencils to advanced weapons systems from the private sector.
The Defense Department alone accounts for 75 percent of that spending. Following a series of scandals in the 1980s, where the Pentagon was revealed to have paid outrageous sums for commercially available products, Congress decided to overhaul government procurement. The result was the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994, which simplified the maze of procurement regulations to make it easier for federal agencies to buy products from the private sector.
The new law dovetailed with former Vice President Al Gore's "Reinventing Government" initiative, which aimed to trim the federal workforce, and matched the realities of the Pentagon's shrinking budget. As a result, where the federal workforce has shrunk, the contractor workforce has grown. Paul Light, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, calls this workforce the "shadow government," and estimated its size in 1999 at 5.6 million.
More than half of all government contracting today is spent on services—an increase of about 24 percent since 1990—making it the largest spending category. "Twenty years ago, (the government) contracted for supplies, construction and services, in that order. Now it's services, supplies and construction, but services are what's driving the train," says Steven Schooner, associate professor and co-director of the government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University.