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On March 7, 2022, the FAR Council published the final rule containing changes to Buy American Act (“BAA”) domestic preference requirements.
This final rule is a significant step towards implementation of a policy to enhance domestic preferences announced by President Biden in E.O. 14005 just a few days after taking office. You may recall that the FAR Council previously issued a proposed rule that contemplated (1) phased increases in domestic content thresholds, (2) enhanced preferences for critical products and components, and (3) post-award reporting requirements for critical products and components. See our prior posts addressing President Biden’s E.O. 14005 and the proposed rule.
The final rule retained most of what the FAR Council initially proposed, but there are a few changes that we discuss below. We also point out some aspects of the new policy that remain to be fleshed out in future rulemaking.
Increased Domestic Content Thresholds
The proposed rule contemplated increasing the current domestic content threshold from 55 percent to 60 percent, with subsequent increases to 65 percent and 75 percent beginning in calendar years 2024 and 2029, respectively. The final rule retains these increases but allows for a longer period than typically provided before the first increase to 60 percent becomes effective. The 60 percent threshold will take effect October 25, 2022—over six months after publication, rather than the customary 30 or 60 days after publication. Thus, contractors and agencies have several more months to plan for the new threshold.
Lawsuits challenging the Biden Administration’s many vaccine mandates have changed the compliance landscape over the last few months. This post summarizes the current status of the four major mandates:
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) mandate;
Healthcare Worker mandate;
Federal Employee mandate; and
Federal Contractor mandate.
Spoiler alert: The Federal Contractor mandate–which has caused the most significant confusion for Government contractors since its issuance–still does.
1. OSHA Mandate
OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”) required that all employees of employers with 100 or more employees either be fully vaccinated or wear a mask and submit to weekly COVID‑19 testing. On January 13, 2022, the Supreme Court upheld a preliminary injunction of the OSHA mandate, finding that it likely exceeded OSHA’s authority.
Status: Withdrawn (OSHA announced that it was withdrawing the ETS on January 26, 2022).
Yesterday the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of Executive Order (“EO”) 14042, under which prime contractors and subcontractors are required to ensure that all of their employees working “on or in connection with” covered federal contracts are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (“Vaccine Mandate”). The order was issued in a lawsuit filed by the States of Georgia, Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, South Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia; governors of several of those states; and various state agencies that challenged the Biden Administration’s authority to issue the Vaccine Mandate. In its decision, State of Georgia, et. al. v. Biden, No. 1:21-cv-163, the court agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the Administration improperly relied on the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act (“FPASA”) to issue the Vaccine Mandate, concluding that the FPASA’s authorization for the President to impose policies to promote economy and efficiency in procurement did not extend to polices focused primarily on public health.
As directed in President Biden’s January 25, 2021, Executive Order we discussed six months ago, last week the FAR Council proposed increases to the Buy American Act (“BAA”) domestic content requirements, and previewed enhanced price preferences and reporting obligations for “critical” domestic products and components under the BAA.
The proposed rule, issued on July 30, 2021, contains three key elements: (1) Phased increases in domestic content thresholds from the current 55% to 75% by 2029, (2) enhanced price preferences for critical products and components, and (3) post-award reporting requirements for critical products and components.
A virtual public meeting to discuss the proposed rule will be held on August 26, 2021, and comments are due by September 28, 2021. The DAR Council also has an open DFARS Case relating to BAA provisions (2019-D045).
We provide an overview of the rule below along with practical takeaways for contractors to consider in light of these potentially significant changes.
Legal developments aimed at government contractors do not always make headline news in mainstream media, but last week’s Executive Order on Increasing the Minimum Wage for Federal Contractors, April 27, 2021 (“Executive Order”), did get widespread attention, perhaps because it is viewed by some in political circles as the next best thing for an administration that sees substantial congressional hurdles for more broadly applicable minimum wage increase legislation. So you have probably heard about about the Executive Order, but how will it impact government contractors?
What does the Executive Order do?
The Executive Order will increase the hourly minimum wage for workers working on or in connection with federal government contracts to $15.00, effective January 30, 2022. This will be a substantial increase from the current minimum wage of $10.95 applicable to most federal contracts pursuant Executive Order 13658. (EO 13658 originally set a federal contractor minimum wage of $10.10, effective January 1, 2015, when it was issued by President Obama in early 2014. That minimum wage has since increased annually.)
How will the increase be implemented?
The Secretary of Labor is to issue implementing regulations by November 24, 2021, and the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council is to amend the FAR to provide the new minimum wage provisions in federal procurement solicitations, contracts, and contract-like instruments within 60 days after issuance of the Labor Department’s implementing regulations.
“Buy American” is one of few policy areas where the Biden and Trump administrations appear to generally agree. The Trump administration expressed support for strengthening regulatory implementation of the Buy American Act (“BAA”), and, in Executive Order 13881 (July 15, 2019), directed the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council (“FAR Council”) to consider proposed regulations to increase and create new domestic content thresholds required for a product to qualify for domestic preference treatment. We wrote four months ago about the FAR Council’s proposed regulations to do just that, and to increase the price evaluation credit given to domestic products subject to the BAA. (SeeProposed Rule Portends Increased Contractor BAA Obligations.) On January 19, 2021, the FAR Council published its final rule, largely adopting the proposed version.
The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) has released its Annual Report to Congress summarizing bid protest activity for Fiscal Year 2020 (GAO-21-281SP). The report shows that, in a unique year where COVID-19 altered procurement practices and priorities, protest activity at GAO was remarkably stable. Of note, GAO’s “effectiveness rate” this year topped 50 percent, meaning most protests resulted in some form of relief. The number of task order protests continues to increase, despite a modest dip in overall protests. Unsurprisingly, again there were very few hearings.
The chart below summarizes the GAO protest statistics from FY 2015 to FY 2020.
Here are four key takeaways from the latest report.
On September 14, 2020, the FAR Council published a proposed rule, Case 2019-016 “Maximizing Use of American-Made Goods, Products, and Materials,” 85 FR 56558, which proposes certain increased and new thresholds for contractors subject to the Buy American Act (“BAA”). The proposed changes implement Executive Order 13881 (July 15, 2019). There is a November 13, 2020, deadline for interested parties to submit written comments for consideration in the final rule.
The key proposed changes are as follows:
Items subject to a minimum domestic component test would need to meet a new threshold of 55 percent, an increase of five percent from the current 50 percent threshold. Domestic end items and construction materials would need to be manufactured in the United States, and would need to be manufactured from components which, based on cost, are over 55 percent domestic (components mined, produced, or manufactured in the United States).
A new, distinct threshold would be created for end items and construction materials that are made predominantly of iron or steel or a combination of both—meaning that the iron and steel content of the item exceeds half of the total cost of all components in the item. For such items, the domestic component content threshold would be 95 percent. In other words, for items made predominantly of iron or steel to be considered domestic, they would need to be manufactured in the United States and contain less than 5 percent non-domestic components by cost. This is a significant change; currently these items are subject to a much lower domestic content requirement—anything over 50 percent.
The commercially available off-the-shelf (“COTS”) exception to the cost of component requirements would still apply to end items and construction materials that are not made predominantly of iron or steel. In other words, such COTS items would need to be mined, manufactured, or produced in the United States, but there would be no requirement that any portion of the components of such COTS items be domestic.
The COTS exception to the cost of component requirements would not apply to end items and construction materials that are made predominantly of iron or steel. The rule set forth in (2) above would apply—to be considered domestic, such COTS items would need to be manufactured in the United States and contain less than five percent non-domestic components by cost.
However, the rule set forth in (4) above would not apply to fasteners—hardware devices that mechanically join or affix two or more objects together—such as nuts, bolts, pins, rivets, nails, clips, and screws. Fasteners, even if made predominantly of iron or steel, would still fall within the COTS exception in (3) above, such that they only need to be manufactured in the United States. The source of components would not matter.
Price evaluation adjustments made to bids for non-domestic items would increase from six percent to 20 percent (if bidder is not small) and from 12 percent to 30 percent (if bidder is a small business). For Department of Defense procurements, the existing 50 percent price evaluation adjustment applied to offers of non-domestic items would still apply.
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit articulated limits to the government’s ability to rely on the waiver doctrine to enforce Federal Acquisition Regulation (“FAR”) provisions of questionable legality, and, in so doing, cast doubt on the government’s “heads we win, tails you lose” approach to measuring the cost impact of simultaneous changes to a contractor’s cost accounting practices.
In The Boeing Company v. United States, 2019-2148 (Aug. 10, 2020), the Federal Circuit rejected the government’s argument that Boeing’s claim—which was based on an apparent conflict between (1) a statutory provision limiting the costs the government may recover for cost accounting practice changes to the aggregate increased cost to the government, and (2) a FAR provision under which the government’s recovery considers only the changes that increase costs to the government, and disregards changes that decrease costs to the government—was waived because Boeing did not raise the issue prior to contract award. Continue reading “Government Reliance on Waiver Argument to Keep Price Adjustment Windfall Fails”
When the Department of Defense (“DOD”) procures defense items that require substantial investment to design, test, and manufacture, it often seeks to acquire, along with these products, the contractor’s technical data package (“TDP”) used to build the product. Complete TDPs can facilitate effective competition—perhaps by neutralizing an otherwise daunting incumbent’s advantage—when the products are up for rebid a few years later. But in seeking TDPs—and rights in technical data and computer software (collectively “data”) generally—the DOD is prohibited from requiring a contractor, as a condition of obtaining a contract, to relinquish greater rights in data deliverables than the DOD is otherwise entitled to obtain based on who funded the development of the data. See DOD Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (“DFARS”) 227.7103-1(c), 227.7203-1(c).
Notwithstanding this prohibition, the DOD frequently obtains greater data rights than it is entitled to based on actual funding of the development—i.e., limited rights (development privately funded), government purpose rights (mixed funding), and unlimited rights (development funded by the government). How does this happen?
Bid protests challenging DOD attempts to extract greater rights in data than it is entitled as a condition for contract award have been rare. In Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, B-416027 (May 22, 2018), the protester complained that the Air Force sought a minimum of government purpose rights in software regardless of funding source (i.e., even if the software had been funded exclusively at private expense). While the argument made sense on the merits, it was untimely filed, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office refused to consider the argument even though it could have done so based on the “significant issue” exception to its timeliness rules. The protest still had an impact, however. Subsequent to the protest, the Air Force clarified its intent and disclaimed any intent to insist upon government purpose rights as a minimum.
The Air Force’s walk-back of its Request for Proposal language—which did seem to communicate an insistence upon at least government purpose rights—apparently reflected the Air Force’s recognition that such insistence was unlawful. And perhaps, as a practical matter, the Air Force recognized that there are ways to incentivize offerors to provide greater data rights than they are otherwise required to—without making such provisions an express condition for award.
An incentivizing technique used frequently by DOD procurement offices in recent years is making optional the provision of a robust TDP. This may include the government’s right to provide the data to the contractor’s competitors in future procurements even where the source of development funding would not normally grant the government such authority. In such procurements, an offeror can choose whether to offer a TDP with greater data rights than that to which the government would otherwise be entitled. An offeror who chooses not to offer such a package would still be considered eligible for award—if this was not the case, the DOD would be violating the DFARS by making award eligibility conditional upon providing greater rights than that to which the DOD is entitled. But an offeror who does offer greater rights than those to which the DOD would otherwise be entitled would receive additional credit in the evaluation.
Evaluation credit typically takes the form of an adjustment to the offeror’s evaluated price. For example, the solicitation may provide that, to the extent an offeror proposes to provide a “perfect” TDP, giving the DOD maximum flexibility to provide the TDP to the offeror’s competitors, the offeror’s proposed price will be adjusted downward for purposes of evaluation by a significant amount, such as $100,000 or more. TDPs that are less than optimal but that still provide some value to the DOD would be a assigned a more modest credit. Offerors who choose not to offer TDPs receive no price evaluation credit.
If you are scratching your head, wondering whether an offeror who chooses not to offer an optional TDP effectively takes itself out of the running for a realistic chance of award, that is understandable. And if that possibility means that, as practical matter, optional TDPs really are not optional—or are optional only for companies that want to compete in significant DOD procurements with no real chance of winning—an argument can be made that such evaluation scheme is at odds with the DFARS, and defeats the purpose of the underlying regulation. This issue has not been addressed in any published protests.
Deciding whether to voluntarily grant greater TDP rights is a weighty decision that concerns interests beyond the immediate competition. Contractors evaluating whether and how to respond to DOD requests for more extensive data rights, particularly in the competitive procurement context, must consider:
How will providing such rights impact the contractor’s overall business?
To the extent such impacts may be adverse, do the potential upsides of winning the contract make up for this?
If not, can the solicitation be challenged as unlawfully conditioning contract award eligibility on provision of data rights to which the DOD is not entitled?
If the answer to question three is yes, the contractor must be proactive and, to avoid the fate of Sikorsky, raise any protest challenging the solicitation prior to the deadline for receipt of proposals.