Yesterday, the White House called in Homeland Secretary Napolitano to chair one of the breakout sessions at the President’s “fiscal responsibility summit.” Her session focused on what the government buys. AP published a summary of the discussions. Most of the talk focused on rules and policies for hiring government contractors. It all sounded pretty pathetic with politicians mouthing tired old lines about government contracting without any substantive analysis to back them up.

Indeed, most of their answers sounded like they’ll make contracting less, not more efficient–layering on more layers of oversight and requirements that will drive-up costs. For example, according to AP, “Napolitano asked the panel, made up of lawmakers and interest group leaders, whether federal contracting should come with strings attached, requiring businesses, for example, to provide employees health care if the company receives government work.” Even some of the legislators recognized that is a bad idea. “Most opposed such a mandate, arguing it would keep some small businesses from seeking federal contracts and increase the cost of some projects. ‘There are a lot of practical problems with it,’ Levin said.”

Adding more bureaucracy and rules to a contracting system already crushed by rules is a really bad idea. Senator McCain introduced a particularly horrible suggestion-more red tape, yet another agency that would have to review every contract. As national security analyst Baker Spring wrote, “public auditors should not be permitted to drive govern­ment policy.”

What government can and should do if it wants more bang for its buck is simple-become a better customer. The shabby state of the federal contracting work force was at the root of the most serious problems in contracting for support for operations in Iraq. Napolitano faces similar challenges in her own department. And that is where she should start to look if she wants to cut contracting costs in a sensible and responsible manner.

Cross posted at