It’s nice to see the Congress is operating the way it should be, now that the committee chairmen belong to the other party than the President’s. That means that issues like the passport application overload are dealt with in a timely way.
Even under a same-party situation, this hearing might have come up. Every senator who spoke was clearly irritated at the amount of time and effort passports are requiring from his staff, displacing other issues.
Every senator also spoke well of the people on the line, the workers who are getting the passports out. That’s consistent with the reports we’re getting on WhirledView. The senators made it clear that it is the management of the response to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that they are concerned about.
Senator Bill Nelson (D – FL) chaired the meeting. His concerns included projections of demand resulting from the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, how the $60 fee for expediting passports is to be refunded, and the performance of the contractors.
Nelson bulldogged his issues. Maura Harty, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Consular affairs, didn’t always have the answers that Nelson was looking for. At one point, he insisted that she send one of her aides out to get a number that he wanted.
Harty seemed very protective of the contractors, which may have been part of the reason Nelson was so persistent. Even so, I estimate she gave him less than half the information he needs.
Harty did say that it was BearingPoint who made the initial estimate of increased passport application volume. She reluctantly admitted that it is Citibank that is handling the front-end “lockbox” facility. And it’s Stanley, another private contractor, who is running the new passport printing facility in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Harty repeated, a number of times, that she took full responsibility for BearingPoint’s bad estimates. Of course, if she blamed BearingPoint, that would have looked like she was trying to shirk responsibility. Apparently the Department of the Treasury is responsible for the “lockbox” contractor, Citibank, but we don’t know who hired BearingPoint. If it was Harty’s responsibility, then she could also be accused of doing a poor job on that hiring. So she had to say she took responsibility for those estimates.
I find the use of these contractors disturbing, but hardly surprising. For the past decade or so, there has been pressure to privatize more and more government functions. But to what end? The theory is that the private sector is made lean by competition and will therefor do these services more cheaply and efficiently.
But look at BearingPoint and Stanley: what do they do besides government work? And Citibank’s contract is most likely through a subsidiary that handles only government contracts.
That’s not the same as competition in the private sector. That’s someone else doing the same work that government employees would do, with additional overhead and profit tacked on. Most likely, these contracts are costing the taxpayer more than government employees would.
So the rationale of less expense and more efficiency goes away. What would be the incentive? Senator Nelson asked Harty whether Citibank was subject to penalties for their poor performance. She said she didn’t know.