WASHINGTON -- Contractors could, and did, complain plenty during the government shutdown -- but what they couldn't do was lodge those complaints formally.
Bid protests, which allow government contractors to contest a lost contract with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), have become an increasingly significant part of the federal procurement process. In fiscal 2012, companies filed nearly 2,500 protests, up from about 1,650 in 2008.
Typically, contractors argue that some part of their evaluation for a bid wasn't fair -- that the agency's contracting officer didn't give them enough credit for the good work they did in the past or unfairly judged the technical merits of their proposal, for example.
But after the GAO was forced to close Oct. 1, contractors couldn't officially file new protests and couldn't get responses to the ones they'd already filed. (The GAO allowed companies to email their protests, but said the protests would be marked as filed the day the government reopened).
"October is the very busiest time of the year" for the GAO's protest office, given the surge of contracts issued at the end of the government's fiscal year in late September, said Daniel Gordon, the former administrator for federal procurement policy. "It could not have happened at a worse time."
Companies with protests pending or disputes yet to open were left in the dark. Now reopened, the GAO has said it will try to stay within its 100-day deadline for deciding protests, but it reserved the right to add up to 16 days (the length of the shutdown) to the response time.
Anticipating a shutdown, the GAO team had worked ahead last month, issuing decisions in September that weren't due until mid-Octo
ber, said Ralph White, GAO's managing associate general counsel for procurement law.
Even so, when GAO officials arrived back at work Thursday, they found about 750 separate emailed files -- a mix of new protests and responses to ongoing disputes. All told, White said GAO expects to have more than 200 bid protests with a filing date of Oct. 17, meaning they all will be due for decision no more than 100 days later, by Jan. 27.
"We're going to be very happy on Jan. 28," White said.
Among the contested contracts being considered by the GAO is the Navy's closely-watched Next Generation Enterprise Network program, which would upgrade the Navy and Marine Corps' intranet and is worth up to $3.5 billion.
A Hewlett-Packard-led team won the work, but competing bidder Harris Corp. protested the win. The GAO's docket originally said the agency will rule by Oct. 23, but the shutdown could delay the decision.
The GAO showed signs of recovering Thursday, when it sent out decisions on two protests.
For contractors, though, the protest delays are just another inconvenience after a year of automatic spending cuts, budget cuts and, of course, the shutdown. Unlike federal workers, contractors do not expect to receive back pay for the days they were unable to work.
"Their life is difficult," said Anthony H. Anikeeff, who co-chairs the Williams Mullen government contracting practice. "It becomes more and more stressful."