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Sixth Commandment of Government Contracting: Thou shalt avoid political intervention

September 22, 2014

(This article is part of a 10-part series for the blog of Public Contracting Institute called, “A Government Contractor’s Ten Commandments.”)

By Tim Sullivan

In the Third Commandment, “Thou Shalt Start as Low as Possible,” I discussed the challenges associated with seeking political intervention to solve a Government contracting problem. This topic deserves treatment on its own because it is fraught with risk. Political intervention will almost certainly give rise to something known as a “congressional” within the Executive Branch agencies. It may have 13 characters, but to an agency employee, “congressional” is a four-letter word.

My first experience with a congressional was in the early 1970s when I was an Army sergeant assigned to an office in Alexandria, Va. Part of my job was preparing daily briefings for the Army’s Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence. The Vietnam War was still raging, and some disgruntled enlisted personnel had begun a practice called “fragging,” where they would roll a live grenade into an officer’s tent.  Hundreds of officers were killed as a result. One day we received a packet from the Pentagon with a pink sheet on it. I soon learned that this was a “congressional” and that the pink sheet basically meant that anyone finding it in their in-box had to drop everything else and address this first. It was hotter than hot.

In this case, it was a letter from the mother of a young Army officer. She had written to her congressman, her two senators, the Secretary of the Army, the Vice President and the President imploring them to do something to protect her son and his fellow officers from fragging. Back then, each one of those letters worked its way through the system to our office, and we were tasked with preparing the draft response, an exercise that involved no fewer than five people for each letter. The name of that woman, who had every right to be concerned about her son’s welfare, remains indelibly etched into my memory.

Over the years I have encountered a number of situations where our client or someone on our team thought we should seek political intervention. If we had exhausted every other possible means of resolving the problem, I was willing to consider the political angle, but even then I was wary of it. While your congressmen or senator certainly represents your district or state, they do not view themselves as your company’s “man or woman in Washington.” Unless your company employs a significant number of people, it is difficult to attract meaningful attention from your elected representatives and their staffers. Jobs are a sacred cow to politicians, and if you can convince them that what you are asking for will either bring lots of new jobs to the district or prevent the loss of lots of jobs, you might have a shot at obtaining some meaningful assistance. Yes, there are situations where your story is so poignant or the injustice you are trying to correct is so outrageous that even the little guys can get help, but they are rare.

I am not saying you are going to get the brush-off from your elected representative — far from it. A staffer will contact you, listen sympathetically and be very polite. More often than not, the staffer will prepare a written communication to the agency (every agency has an office of legislative liaison) and at some point several weeks in the future, the staffer will forward you the agency’s written response with a cover note saying something like, “For your information,” or “with kind regards.” More likely than not, the note will be a very polite… brushoff. But remember how that note was generated: It was sent from your congressman’s office to the agency’s legislative liaison office, and from there it worked its way to the office most directly responsible for the problem. Those folks had to drop everything they were doing in order to prepare the agency’s response, and they will not soon forget the names of the people or the company behind the congressional. So now you have not only swung and missed, but in the process you also have alienated some bureaucrats — people who might be involved in future decisions involving your company.

If you and your lawyers truly believe that political intervention is necessary, hire a professional to guide you through the process. I am well aware that “lobbyist” has negative connotations, but I am also aware of many people who are skilled in Government relations. Labels aside, they know what will work and what will not work. They can give you an independent opinion on whether you have any chance for success and can work with you to develop an action plan. Trying to do this on your own is both naïve and wasteful, and it could actually damage whatever relationship you have with an agency that is your customer or potential customer. This simply is not smart business.'

Tim Sullivan is the chair of Thompson Coburn’s Government Contracts Group. He can be reached at tsullivan@thompsoncoburn.com or (202) 585-6930. Tim previously authored a series of articles on the “10 Myths of Government Contracting.”