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Federal Government Contracting: A Resource Guide

Understanding the Past

Most researchers looking to understand older government contracts are looking for values and products/services rendered. However, there are times when understanding the process and general contracting environment and system can be helpful in understanding how data is reported and where to find it.

The changes in government contracting have mostly changed by a series of laws as well as the implementation done via the Federal Acquisition Regulation (Title 48 of the CFR). There are a number of laws that have influenced federal contracting but much of what happens today is a result of the Competition in Contracting Act of 1984. CICA was a significant overhaul of federal acquisition law largely intended to increase competition from contractors to improve federal procurement outcomes. Below is a list of just a few of them.

  • Federal Acquisition Reform Act (FARA) (Division D of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1996; Pub.L. 104–106; 110 Stat. 186)
  • Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA) of 1994  (Pub.L. 103–355; 108 Stat. 3243)
  • Competition in Contracting Act of 1984 (CICA) (Pub.L. 98-369; 98 Stat. 494)
  • Truth in Negotiations Act of 1962 (TINA) (Pub.L. 87-653; 76 Stat. 528)
  • Armed Services Procurement Act (ASPA) 1947 (Pub.L. 80-413; 62 Stat.21)
  • Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 (Pub.L. 81-152; 63 Stat. 377)
  • Creation of the Federal Supply Committee. Executive Order 1071 External (May 13, 1909)
  • Antideficiency Act of 1894 (Pub.L. 97–258; 96 Stat. 923)
  • Creation of Board of Awards January 27, 1894 (28 Stat. 33)
  • Civil Sundry Appropriations Act of 1861 ( Section 10 deals with contracts; 12 Stat. 220)

Additionally, during war time some activity related to acquisitions may have happened though Executive orders. For example, after War was declared in 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9001 Establishing Methods for Wartime Procurement on December 27, 1941 and Executive Order 9024 Establishing the War Production Board on January 16, 1942.

Another complication are the history of the National Stock Number (NSN), sometimes referred to as a NATO number previously the National Item Identification Number (NIIN) and the transition from one to another. There is also the Federal Supply Classification.

As for finding individual contracts, academic and trade literature can publish articles that are general about contracting with the government but they can also do articles on very specific issues like defense contracting or looking at a particular time period or product. For example, the Economic Priorities Report published "The Business of War: 523 Corporate Contractors for the War in Indochina" in their February/March 1971 issue. One other source to mention is Dun's Review. This general interest business publication includes articles on a variety of subjects, but it also covered government contracting when necessary. During World War II, for example:

  • Defense Contracts, Summary (June 1941 special issue)
  • State Totals for Defense Contracts (June 1941 special issue)
  • Notes on Localities Affected by Defense Program (June 1941 special issue)
  • Government Financed Defense Plant Expansion (June 1941 special issue)
  • Defense Contract Information (June 1941 special issue)
  • Contract Awards by States, Per Cent of Total (November 1941)
  • Contract Awards and Labor Supply by States (November 1941)
  • Awards and Payments, Cumulative, by Month (November 1941)
  • Notes on Localities Affected by the Defense Program Effects in 750 Communities (November 1941)

Military Contracts

Historically speaking, spending by the War Department / Department of Defense has accounted for the bulk of government contracts which is why so many of the sources like the Quartermaster manuals included below, focus on that area. We have included more general titles but there are publications that address more specific situations like Construction in the United States (1972) or Buying Aircraft: Materiel Procurement for the Army Air Forces (1964) or articles like "Business of War: 523 Corporate Contractors for the War in Indochina" (Economic Priorities Report Vol. 1, No. 7 - Feb/March 1971). One area also not included but which can be helpful, are congressional documents like the notable hearings of Admiral Rickover on Defense Contracting (Joint Economic Committee Jan. 28, 1982).

When it comes to understanding military procurement, how the department has been organized plays an important role in how contracts have been issued, recorded, and stored so below are four of the most major pieces of legislation that changed defense organization.

  • Dent Act of 1919 (P.L. 65-322) This act is particularly important to know about for contracts related to WWI and specifically for "relief where formal contracts have not been made in manner required by law."
  • National Security Act of 1947 (Pub.L. 80–253) This realigned and reorganized the U.S. Armed Forces, foreign policy, and Intelligence Community apparatus in the aftermath of World War II. It merged the Department of War and the Department of the Navy into one agency headed by the Secretary of Defense. It was also responsible for the creation of the Air Force into its own service. Much acquisition was still done on a by military branch basis.
  • Defense Production Act (Pub.L. 81–774) This was enacted on September 8, 1950, in response to the start of the Korean War. It was part of a broad civil defense and war mobilization effort in the context of the Cold War.
  • Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (Pub.L. 99–433) This law reworked the command structure of the United States military. It increased the powers of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and implemented some of the suggestions from the Packard Commission. It also streamlined the military chain of command. The service chiefs were assigned to an advisory role to the President and the Secretary of Defense as well as given the responsibility for training and equipping personnel for the unified combatant commands. It also seriously changed procurement and created a shared procurement structure.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.


Internet Resources