buying government toiletpaper

The Blaze posts a recent article about wasteful purchasing by the government. This article covers a single buy of toilet paper for the DOJ. Whoever wrote this article is largely unfamiliar with government contracting, and they chose a fairly bad example to make their case (maybe $400,000 camel statues are too easy). This toilet paper purchase was actually one of the more legitimate purchases in government contracting (the government is required to buy, via bilateral contract, any requirements exceeding $3,000 unless it is applicable to the Service Contract Act or Davis Bacon Act).

The article highlights the buying of AbilityOne toilet paper, although the author is unaware of AbilityOne or the law behind AbilityOne purchases or what would prove to be general popular support of this law. The author assumes this bid will turn out at a high cost to the government, offering no support for this position. The increased cost for this item is attributed vaguely to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which then is assumed to have undergone minor changes. If anything, the FAR is much too volatile. The FAR is updated regularly per every scheme of every politician every time a law is passed or an executive order is signed. The FAR also has volatile supplements per each Federal agency, subject to those agencies’ memos. The FAR and the supplements can be seen at the Farsite. The FAR is unstable and ever shifting in an age where the Federal Register is ballooning in size. It is no wonder government contracting specialists in their mid 20s command six figure salaries. The FAR is dynamically complicated stuff.

The article criticizes reverse auctioning, a process which works like ebay except providers bid against each other, offering lower and lower prices. In theory, the vendor who accepts the least amount of profit attains the award. This process does work exceptionally well, that is, as long as a single part number is being bid on. But if the government is bidding out generic requirements this is, by and large, a bad process. Pretend the government needs smartphones. It could spec out processor types, sizes, even a specific OS. But a vendor might respond with a quote for Chinese knockoff phones. Unless that bid can be disqualified, the government has to cancel and re-solicit if it does not want to accept that bid. In short, reverse auctioning is bad for general requirements, but great for specific part numbered items.

In the case of AbilityOne toilet paper, there is only one item. So this purchase will actually be of great value to the government, all factors considered. The single item is signified by the NSN number in the solicitation. Charmin and Whitecloud products cannot be bid. The toilet paper must come from AbilityOne, a manufacturer hiring blind and disabled workers. The AbilityOne requirement is generated by the Javits Wagner O’Day Act which, for good or bad, mandates that the government purchase specific part numbers from vendors who sell items manufactured by those who are blind or disabled. This is a feel-good law that most Americans would endorse (not the best idea to use this as an example of wasteful spending).

The real problem with Fedbid (the reverse auctioning website criticized in the article) is that the government is forcing agencies to use it. Fedbid is a private contractor who convinced the government to start using reverse auctioning. Fedbid is remitted a portion of award values by the companies receiving awards. Because of the nature of Fedbid, it is wholly unfit for the types of solicitations being forced on Fedbid. Additionally, Fedbid was awarded their own master contract under highly dubious circumstances. The Air Force is in the process of debarring Fedbid for illegal and improper activities.

One glaring problem is that the article hypothetically prices the toilet paper at $1.00 per roll, whereas a quick search on GSAAdvantage.gov (the government’s equivalent of Amazon.com) shows a low price of $0.50 per roll. Several commenters were confused and believed the government would actually be paying $1.00 per roll. Most likely, the government will being paying less than half of that price. The Blaze failed to perform basic market research; their readers became misinformed and confused as a result.

Where The Blaze is absolutely correct is that they highlight the absurd number of clauses that vendors must endorse before doing business with the government. Some of the clauses are statements that promise the government that the vendor does not traffic humans or use text messaging while driving. I am quite sure that those things are illegal and a vendor engaged in sex trafficking, nonetheless, would have no problem lying to the government for a contract. The article glances, yet does not elaborate, at the amount of additional red tape, including registering at SAM.gov and accepting the government’s antiquated invoicing system (complete with chronically late payments).

If The Blaze really wanted to point out the bureaucratic processes in government, they would have focused on high level contracts and the processes involved. The below chart should give people an idea of the overhead involved in those purchases:

contracting chart

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
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