Hoekstra Uncovers Something Rotton

December 2, 2002
Text Size:
Congressman Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, likens the Federal Prison Industries (FPI) story to an onion. "You keep peeling away layers," he told the Business Journal recently, "and you keep finding more layers."

During recent hearings of the House Committee on Small Business, Hoekstra directed a pointed question to Angela Styles, procurement policy director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget. "Why," he asked, "doesn't the White House just say 'No' to what's going on?"

He was referring to his discovery that FPI, which does business as Unicor, has:

  • Grown itself into a multi-billion dollar industry — that's "billion" with a "B" — exacerbating the recession's destruction of thousands of private sector jobs in the furniture industry and elsewhere.
  • Commissioned the manufacture of furniture for U.S. government offices by Canadian competitors of firms such as Steelcase, Haworth and Herman Miller.
  • Used its Web site (www.unicor.gov) to solicit agency orders for a huge range of goods and services " without the inconvenience of competitive bidding."
  • Flouted its mandate to provide industrial training solely for prisoners, flouted new statutes curtailing its "mandatory supplier" advantage, and flouted its own board's directions to stop soliciting Canadian manufacturing.

Hoekstra said during the hearing that Unicor's priorities seem to be jobs for prisoners first, jobs for Canadians second and jobs for Americans third.

He deserves commendation for his bulldog grip on this issue which, by the way, is completely non-partisan. Two of Hoekstra's constant supporters have been Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow. Hoekstra also is allied with the furious FPI board and the equally livid Congressman Donald Manzullo, R-Chicago, who chairs the Small Business Committee.

What they hope to achieve — since it's virtually impossible to fire federal employees — is to shove FPI's managers into jobs elsewhere and to bring in an entirely new staff. Such an action probably can't happen if the White House doesn't induce the Department of Justice to cooperate.

Hoekstra sought office in the first place partly because he felt his predecessor wasn't trying to keep the U.S. government from taking business and jobs from the office furniture industry. He has discovered he didn't know the half of it. A federal agency — part of and defended by the U.S. Department of Justice — hasn't merely used free prison labor to compete with American firms, but has used federal revenues sub rosa to subsidize foreign competitors and put U.S. taxpayers out of work.

West Michigan furniture and tool and die workers and their families have suffered and had to reinvent careers thanks in part to the machinations of — it's hard to write this — fellow citizens: federal bureaucrats with cushy six-figure salaries, platinum-plated health insurance and whose employment, thanks to civil service protection, is guaranteed. If there's greed in this country, it's certainly not confined to the private sector.

So how did this smarmy mess come to be? It's hard to explain unless you accept the cliché that bureaucracy — which is free of competition and whose only natural enemies are a few grip-and-chew Congressmen — really does accrete and aggrandize itself, placing the public interest last.

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus