Pace of Trump Nominations Causes Growing Contractor Concerns

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By Sam Skolnik

President Donald Trump has yet to fill the two most important procurement policy positions in the government, almost a half-year into his administration. At the same time, precious few names have surfaced as possible picks for either post. Just one, in fact.

There’s little telling how much longer federal contractors will have to wait to work with Senate-confirmed administrators at the General Services Administration and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

The lack of permanent leadership at the top of GSA and OFPP is causing concern because it’s leaving government contractors in a state of limbo, prominent industry officials said.

Even the most capable acting agency administrators aren’t able to develop and implement policy to the same degree as permanent leaders with a clear-cut mission and direction, Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council, told Bloomberg BNA.

“There’s simply a different level of respect” afforded to president-selected, Senate-confirmed officials, Chvotkin said.

Contracting businesses are eager for the positions to be filled, so that the effort to roll back several of former President Barack Obama’s procurement-related policies can begin in earnest, Rob Burton, a partner with Crowell & Moring and former deputy and acting administrator of OFPP during the George W. Bush administration, told Bloomberg BNA.

“These positions are really very important to industry,” he said.

‘A Real Expert’

Just one name is being mentioned these days as a possible candidate to lead either the GSA or the OFPP: Emily Murphy, a senior adviser to GSA Acting Administrator Timothy Horne. Murphy is being considered for both posts, several close observers of the contracting industry said.

Murphy, who did not respond to questions emailed both to her and to a GSA spokeswoman, has held a broad range of procurement and acquisition-related jobs throughout government, law firms, and industry, and has developed specialties in small business and defense contracting.

She served as GSA’s chief acquisition officer from 2005 to 2007, according to her LinkedIn page, and previously worked for a year as a government contracts adviser with the Small Business Administration.

Before that, Murphy worked as an associate with the government contracts and government affairs practices at the Washington law firm Wiley Rein.

“She was wholly dedicated to developing her expertise in Federal procurement, and she always had an interest in helping small developing companies,” Scott McCaleb, a partner with Wiley Rein and co-chair of the firm’s government contracts practice group, told Bloomberg BNA in a written statement. “She has since become a real expert in government contracts and would be an able leader of either GSA or OFPP.”

A Leadership Role

Murphy has spent much of her time on Capitol Hill over the past decade, including a five-year stint working on acquisition issues with the House Small Business Committee, and then with the House Armed Services Committee until January, when she joined the Trump transition team as GSA’s White House liaison. (She began working as an adviser to Horne on April 12, a GSA spokeswoman told Bloomberg BNA in a written statement.)

She also spent two years as vice president for government contracting for TerreStar Networks, an integrated satellite and telecommunications systems company, according to LinkedIn.

Murphy put her experience to strong use during her time on the Hill, several contracting industry officials said, in part by shepherding several procurement reform provisions and stand-alone bills, relating to small-business acquisition and other matters.

The provisions she helped enact into law related to small-business size standards, mentor-protege relationships among contracting companies, and several other acquisition-related matters, Chvotkin said, including some provisions in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.

“She has a real depth of experience in procurement policy,” Chvotkin said. “If there’s one phrase that comes to mind, it’s ‘outcome-oriented.’”

Before Murphy’s recent tenure with the Small Business Committee, Burton said, the panel had never before focused on procurement issues. “She really took a leadership role,” he said.

Empty Posts

Murphy’s name was first mentioned in press reports as a potential choice for a top procurement post with the Trump administration soon after the Jan. 20 inauguration.

Since then, no other names of what one insider called “serious candidates” have come out in the press. Interviews with seven procurement experts from industry groups, law firms, and academia likewise have yielded no names other than Murphy’s for either the GSA or OFPP jobs.

However, it’s early, several procurement experts warned. There is precedent for presidents taking their time with these picks. Although Obama nominated Martha Johnson for GSA administrator on April 3, 2009, and chose Dan Tangherlini as permanent GSA chief on May 22, 2013 — both much earlier in Obama’s first and second terms — he didn’t make his first nomination for OFPP, Daniel Gordon, until Oct. 2, 2009.

Yet the Trump administration appears to be a special case. Trump had picked less than half the nominees Obama had sent to the Senate in his first term by late April, The Washington Post reported. Trump had yet to make nominations for 384 of 564 “key” federal government positions — more than two out of three, including the GSA and OFPP administrator positions as of July 3, according to a nomination tracker sponsored by the Post and the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group.

Given the congressional schedule and the administration’s pace, Trump’s selections for both agencies may not take place until this fall, Burton said.

The White House press office did not respond to two emails with a list of questions about the GSA and OFPP administrator vacancies.

‘The Fingers of One Hand’

In the case of the GSA, Trump’s selection process may be hindered by a smaller-than-usual crop of qualified candidates, Steven Schooner, co-director of the government procurement law program at George Washington University Law School, told Bloomberg BNA in a written statement.

At issue is the lease for the Trump International Hotel, for which GSA is the landlord, and a provision that appears to restrict all federal elected officials, including U.S. presidents, from financially benefiting from the agreement, Schooner said.

The GSA, under Horne, found the Trump Organization in March to be in “full compliance” with the lease, after months of public criticism from independent ethics experts and congressional Democrats.

“I can’t speak for the real estate community,” said Schooner, “but I can count on the fingers of one hand the names of experienced, reputable procurement professionals who would even consider taking the helm at GSA in this administration, knowing that their names will be forever associated with what can only be described as a global eyesore, one of the most glaring, easily avoidable, and embarrassing conflicts of interests imaginable.”

Rollbacks and Reforms

No matter who the nominees might end up being, contracting industry officials said their agenda has been slowed by the lack of permanent, Senate-confirmed officials in place.

The GSA, for example, faces a need to attract millennials to the federal acquisition workforce, as well as an opportunity to revitalize the agency’s schedules program, Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president, public sector at the IT Alliance for Public Sector, told Bloomberg BNA.

At OFPP, a unit within the Office of Management and Budget, there’s a “critical mass” of Obama-era regulations and rules that need to be rolled back or reformed, Hodgkins said, including several executive orders that target contractors, as well as category management, Obama’s plan to streamline the acquisition process in part by reducing redundant contract designations for common products and services.

Hodgkins said his group’s leaders recently sent a letter to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney expressing their concern about the lack of permanent leaders at OFPP and elsewhere in that agency.

“Without having officials with political backing in place, it’s difficult for us to advance the issues most important to us,” Hodgkins said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at sskolnik@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Ennis at dennis@bna.com

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