House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) is on a mission to see the Department of Homeland Security and its largest contractors hire more small, minority-owned and women-owned companies to fulfill government contracts. He is also willing to dedicate significant resources of the committee and his own personal persuasion to pursuing this goal.
Last month, Thompson summoned more than a dozen federal procurement officials and several major federal contractors to Kansas City, along with a flock of staff, to meet with a group of small-business owners and promise to open doors for the companies to get government contracts.
“Our job is to help you do business,” Thompson told the gathering of about 200 people at Kansas City’s Metropolitan Community College. “I don’t think you will ever have an opportunity to have the cadre of senior people … or the business people that we are going to have here. … So rather than you spending the next six months trying to see these individuals, we just brought ’em to you.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who co-hosted the event with Thompson, said the chairman is a tireless advocate of small and minority businesses, pressuring both government officials and private contractors to ensure “full participation by all the people of this nation in every aspect of homeland security.”
“It is a great joy for me to sit there and watch him work,” Cleaver said, describing a series of breakfast meetings that Thompson has held with leaders of major contractors doing business with the DHS.
“Some of these companies, they just don’t think about small businesses, they don’t think about women-owned businesses, they don’t think about minority-owned businesses,” Cleaver said, later adding, “You cannot talk to any of the major companies in this nation doing business with Homeland Security without them telling you either that they are angry about it or they are joyful that the chairman is insisting — insisting — on participation.”
Cleaver recalled with glee “sitting in that room and having these CEOs sitting around and having to respond favorably to a common request — just do business right, just do business with everybody. And this chairman does it and he does it repeatedly. He does it unashamedly, he doesn’t back up, everybody knows he does it, and my hope is that everybody else will start doing it.”
Thompson is continuing to push prime contractors to do business with minority subcontractors, saying that he has heard from small businesses that large firms partner with them to bid on contracts in order to meet federal requirements for minority participation, but once the contract is awarded, the large firm never actually provides the smaller firm with any work.
Thompson said he plans to draft a bill to address that problem. “What we are going to try to do with some legislation is, if they use you to get the contract, they are going to have to use you to perform the contract.”
Thompson said some large contractors have claimed that they tried to work with smaller subcontractors, but the small firms were unprepared or unable to execute the work the contract called for.
“You’ve heard that before,” Thompson said, “and that dog won’t hunt much longer.”
The chairman told the Kansas City attendees to contact him if Homeland Security is unresponsive.
“Let us know if you are being stonewalled,” Thompson said. “The follow-up is Congressman Cleaver and myself. … A lot of those individuals end up in an oversight responsibility before our committee, and I’ve never been on that side of the table. I’ve always been this side, but I am told that it ain’t no fun to be on the other side testifying before Members of Congress.”
Since Thompson became chairman, the committee has added to its Web site several resources for contractors seeking to do business with the DHS. The committee has a monthly newsletter listing contracts available with Homeland Security and a notation at the bottom of each page: “If you believe your company has been treated unfairly by the Department of Homeland Security, please tell us about it,” with a link to a committee e-mail address.
The Kansas City event was the second official Homeland Security Committee meeting on doing business with the Department of Homeland Security; the first was last March in Tougaloo, Miss., on the campus of Tougaloo College, Thompson’s alma mater. Committee staff said no additional meetings are currently planned, though there are likely to be more in the future.
Attendee Elaine Hamilton, president of Vision Teleproduction Inc., a multimedia communications company, said the conference was worthwhile both for her small company and for the federal government. Hamilton said she has laid off three of her four employees and will have to lay off the last if she doesn’t get a contract soon.
“With just one contract, the bank will give us enough capital to hire back laid off employees,” Hamilton told Roll Call in an e-mail. “Those employees will go back to marketing and helping to acquire more contracts and come off the unemployment rolls. We may not be a multi-million dollar company today but we could be in a few years, as opposed to preparing to shut our doors. Our situation is real time. Just one federal contract could save our business right now, today.”
No Republican committee members have attended either of Thompson’s meetings for small contractors. Robert O’Connor, the committee’s Republican staff director, said in an e-mail: “The Committee’s Democratic majority did not consult with Republican members of the Committee during the planning of this event in Kansas City. In fact, the Democratic majority did not even tell Committee Republicans about the event until the official notification went out” a few weeks before the event.
Republicans have previously raised concerns that Thompson’s focus on minority contracting is elbowing out other important issues on the committee’s agenda, but none of the GOP Members would comment for this story. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has not held hearings on minority contracting opportunities at Homeland Security.
But Thompson’s office argues that the committee continues to pursue a full range of more traditional activities, including hearings on border security, pandemic flu and DHS budget and management.