The argument for preserving the AbilityOne Program

People with significant disabilities represent a vulnerable population in America, having a substantially higher unemployment rate than workers without disabilities. Established in 1938, the AbilityOne Program plays a key role in the award of almost $4 billion a year in federal contracts, resulting in tens of thousands of jobs for people with significant disabilities. In addition to creating jobs for an underemployed population, the AbilityOne Program promotes a diverse government workplace and provides the government with a cost-effective way to fulfill many critical services. Particularly during the current COVID-19 crisis, federal customers depend on the program’s proven and reliable employees, many of whom have been designated as essential and on the front lines of this pandemic.

In an October 2020 report, the National Council on Disability (NCD) identified a number of deficiencies in the AbilityOne Program, such as lack of transparency, the presence of conflicting goals and lack of resources. As a result, the NCD recommended that the program be phased out.

Many of the criticisms raised by the report are valid, however these shortcomings do not support the abolition of the AbilityOne Program. Rather, the better response to the NCD report is to improve the efficiency and transparency of the current program and preserve its promise for all people with disabilities. The elimination of the program sends the wrong message about the government’s commitment to the underserved in our society.

Conceding that an immediate elimination of the program would be problematic, the NCD “calls on Congress to phase out the AbilityOne Program over an eight-year period…” with the program undertaking certain reforms during the phase-out. Ironically, the rehabilitative measures the NCD envisions during this “phase-out” period could arguably be the same measures adopted to reform the program. Accordingly, the government should focus on developing viable solutions to reform the program and ensure its continued success.

The AbilityOne Program is a pillar of our federal procurement system and helps to differentiate it from the commercial marketplace. The federal procurement system is unique because it is not driven by cost alone. It places considerable emphasis on leveraging the government’s purchasing power to provide opportunities for people with significant disabilities, as well as economically disadvantaged, women-owned, HUBZone, and veteran-owned small businesses. The federal procurement system should never lose this uniqueness.

In a Nov. 25, 2020 column, Larysa Kautz, the president and CEO of Melwood, an AbilityOne contractor providing services to over 60 federal government sites, outlined a number of compelling reasons why the AbilityOne Program is an essential vehicle for combating the unemployment of people with disabilities across the nation. Rejecting the more drastic approach of abolishing the program in its entirety, Kautz proposed that the government invest resources to reform the program. As she stated, “AbilityOne needs to be mended, not ended.”

Eliminating the program in its entirety would have a significant negative impact on people with disabilities and would have substantial tangible and intangible costs. Alternatively, the program could be reformed at a much lower cost to the government and society as a whole.

The AbilityOne Program represents what we aspire to be as a society. It uses the buying power of the single largest consumer in the world — the U.S. government — to incentivize employment of an underemployed segment of our community. AbilityOne contracts offer a stable workforce dedicated to quality and customer service and enable long-term supplier relationships. The American taxpayer also benefits from reduced disability payments made to people with significant disabilities and increased tax revenue generated by their employment.

We should aim to make the AbilityOne Program a much more efficient and effective program. The goals the program seeks to accomplish are critical for the health of our federal procurement system and the disabled community. Therefore, dedicated efforts should be made to modernize and improve — not abolish — the AbilityOne Program. Hopefully, this will be a priority for the Biden administration and the 117th Congress.

Robert A. Burton is a partner in the Government Contracts Group at Crowell & Moring LLP in Washington, D.C. He is the former deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Executive Office of the President.

Craig D. Barrett is a senior counsel in the Government Contracts Group at Crowell & Moring LLP in Washington, D.C.  He is the former associate counsel at the Government Publishing Office.

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