WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, has again joined the legislative fight to overturn the federal prison system’s virtual monopoly over goods sold to the government.
Levin on Aug. 1 introduced a bill that would open federal contracts to competitive bidding by removing a decades-old provision that grants Federal Prison Industries exclusive rights to supply federal agencies a myriad of products.
The bill “would do nothing more than permit private sector companies to compete for federal contracts that are paid for with their tax dollars,” Levin said in introducing the proposed Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act.
“I can think of no reason why private industry should be prohibited from competing for these federal agency contracts,” Levin said. “Competition will be better for FPI, better for the taxpayer, and better for the working men and women around the country.”
FPI is an arm of the Federal Bureau of Prisons that employs more than 21,000 federal inmates to produce several products, including office furniture, that it markets under the Unicor brand name. Mandatory-source status requires federal agencies to buy from Unicor, unless they receive a waiver from FPI.
FPI, whose mission is to teach prisoners job skills they can use after they’re released, sold $546.3 million in goods in 2000, including $118.9 million in office furniture. Executives within the $13 billion office furniture industry complain that they should have had the opportunity to bid on that business.
Levin’s legislation is a companion bill to one that Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, introduced in April in the U.S. House.
While legislative efforts to remove mandatory-source status have failed in the past, the lawmakers are as optimistic as ever that they can push through changes in the current Congressional term.
Hoekstra plans to use the August recess to try and work out differences between his bill and a competing measure sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, that would also eliminate FPI’s mandatory-source status, but allow the agency to get into new business categories and compete against the private sector.
Hoekstra opposes allowing FPI to compete against the private sector and hopes to strike a compromise with Wolf, said John VanFossen, Hoekstra’s chief of staff. Meetings scheduled for this month between Hoekstra’s and Wolf’s staffers are designed to “work out some of the sticking points between the two bills,” VanFossen said.
“We’ll determine whether we’ll even have compromise legislation,” he said.
If so, action in the House Judiciary Committee on Hoekstra’s bill could come in September. If no compromise is struck, then each side will push its version to a committee vote, VanFossen said.
Levin’s bill, meanwhile, has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it competes with a Senate version of Wolf’s measure.
Both the Levin and Hoekstra bills have the support of business advocates, including the influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO. Hoekstra reports that Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., also strongly supported similar legislation when a member of the House of Representatives and does so now in the Senate.