As President Trump prepares to travel to Arizona for a rally Tuesday, he’s not much closer to building his “big, beautiful wall” than he was on the campaign trail. The lack of progress is, in part, due to lack of support among border-state Republicans and legitimate bipartisan questions about the effectiveness and cost of a literal wall versus other security measures. Now, one of those border-state Republicans has laid out an alternative border policy that loosens current requirements for a fence—but contains disturbing implications for government contracting and corporate handouts.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (TX) introduced the $15 billion Building America’s Trust Act earlier this month with six other Republican cosponsors. The nearly 500-page bill covers a wide range of immigration policy, from Border Patrol staffing to visa management. One significant change the bill would make is amending the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) to switch the definition of tactical border infrastructure from “fences” to “physical barriers.” IIRIRA is one of the laws Trump cited as authorizing border construction in his January 25 executive order directing DHS to expand the existing wall.
While that subtle shift in terminology may please those who believe the wall is too expensive and unnecessary, other bill language undermines good government spending laws. In Section 188, titled “Exemption from Government Contracting and Hiring Rules,” the bill states that federal laws requiring “full and open competition through the use of competitive procedures shall not apply.” That means laws created to give small businesses a shot at lucrative government contracts and to give taxpayers the best value for their money won’t apply to the billions of dollars in contracts that would result from the bill’s passage. The legislation would also prevent the noncompetitive contracts from being challenged—a likely response to the holdup the current border wall is experiencing due to bid protests filed by companies that weren’t chosen to move ahead in the contracting process.
Federal agencies can use sole-source contracts, but only after meeting criteria spelled out in federal contracting law. Sole-source contracts often lead to problems even in the immediate wake of a major natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on the Gulf Coast. After Katrina, weak oversight of non-competitive contracts exposed taxpayers to significant waste and fraud, with tens of millions of dollars going to unusable tent cities, for example. Eliminating oversight of politically driven programs that often operate on a rushed timeline is even worse, and directly at odds with President Trump’s message of draining the swamp.
The bill also names specific programs, such as the Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER), as required acquisitions. VADER is a drone-mounted radar manufactured by Northrop Grumman and deployed by the military in Afghanistan before the Border Patrol began using it to spot border-busters from the air. Northrop Grumman gave $30,000 to Cornyn’s Leadership PAC in the current funding cycle, and also donated to the campaigns or political action committees of cosponsors John Barrasso (R-WY), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Thom Tillis (R-NC), according to Opensecrets.org. By naming the program in the legislation, Congress is essentially requiring DHS to purchase it rather than to look for comparable programs from other vendors.
Such earmark-like specifications are reminiscent of the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in 2013. That legislation got amended to add $12 billion for Remote Video Surveillance Systems, drones, and helicopters, among other high-tech items. The list of loot reportedly came from a DHS wish list from an older report on the failure of the SBInet program. The immigration bill was never taken up by the House and so died with the 113th Congress, but it managed to perpetuate the trend of immigration bills becoming stimulus programs for defense contractors.
The current border project is shaping up the same way. Lobbying Disclosure Act filings show more than a dozen companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2017 so far to lobby the government on the border wall, border security, or border infrastructure (lobbying disclosures are made quarterly, and the most recent available for review are from June). Most of the companies specialize in sensors, surveillance cameras, and other high-tech security tools, such as IAI North America, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. One of IAI’s subsidiaries manufactures payload sensors mounted on vehicles and aircraft, while another (ELTA North America) makes surveillance and air-defense radars. Some companies, such as Japanese IT company NTT Data Federal, already contract with Customs and Border Protection on technology platforms, and see opportunity in the change the new administration brings: the company’s president bragged that NTT is “in the sweet spot of Trump’s agenda.” Others have checkered histories with DHS, such as Boeing, which managed the disastrous 2006 Secure Border Initiative that was ultimately canceled.
We have a lot of concerns about the way this round of border building is shaping up, from the flawed contracting process to repetition of past border security mistakes. Several federal laws have already been waived to make way for border construction, but waiving protections that ensure a fair and sound playing field for businesses as well as for taxpayers’ wallets could make this border effort even more concerning than those past.