U .S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson Parish, made sure the House saw the light. Now, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, also a Jefferson Republican, is playing point-man in Congress’ upper chamber. Let’s hope he’s successful; he needs support.
At issue is a longstanding federal program called Ability One. It awards military contracts to nonprofits that hire disabled workers who manufacture (or repackage to exacting military specifications) basic items — such as mess trays and massive rolls of paper towels — at cost-effective prices.
As I wrote here in October, it was superseded, probably without Congress’ intent, by another initiative, called the Central Asian States Procurement Initiative (CASPI), of dubious value and even more dubious implementation. CASPI requires our military, if possible, to use “local” suppliers in nations where it is stationed, such as Afghanistan.
The New Orleans Lighthouse for the Blind is among the major suppliers supplanted by CASPI. But this is far from a Louisiana-specific issue. There are 596 Ability One agencies nationwide, with at least one in each of the 48 mainland states, employing more than 50,000 people. For agencies for the blind alone, 14 of them in nine states produce at least 24 separate military products ranging from duct tape to trash bags to hand sanitizer.
Enter Scalise. He drafted and convinced the House to pass an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to make clear that CASPI’s preference for suppliers in lands where our troops are stationed applies only to products not supplied by Ability One programs. In other words, the items produced by disabled Americans would again take precedence.
Now the trick is to get a similar amendment adopted in the Senate. Louisiana’s former senator Mary Landrieu was a big supporter of Ability One. Now Vitter and his new Republican colleague Bill Cassidy are pushing to ensure that Ability One isn’t shoved aside. Vitter has greater seniority and is handling the ball.
By rights, this should be an easy task: Buying from suppliers of proven quality who employ disabled Americans should take priority over making nice with unproven suppliers from foreign lands such as (literally) Djibouti.
Yet the word, through the nonprofit-world grapevine, is that Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is balking. He may be under the false impression, I’m told, that this is somehow a parochial issue, not of national reach. (His staffers returned my call promptly but said they were unaware of the issue and never did get back to me about McCain’s stance on it.)
Not only is the program national (including in Arizona), as noted above, but Ability One has widespread bipartisan backing, including from powerful New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. But the bill (without any Scalise-like language) already has been passed by McCain’s committee, so any amendment by Vitter must come during floor debate (which may begin on Thursday). Yet Senate chairmen tend not to appreciate having their handiwork amended. Hence the concern that the Senate might not follow the Scalise/House lead. If not, that would make it more difficult for something like the Scalise amendment to survive a House-Senate conference committee and be enacted into law.
That’s why Vitter and Cassidy must hear from constituents that their efforts are appreciated. Positive reinforcement helps.
This program isn’t charity: Ability One agencies have supplied the military great products at good prices since 1938. And, as was made evident in a Washington Times story (which I co-wrote) last fall, these disabled workers whose jobs are at stake are tremendously enthusiastic employees.
“When you work, it gives you a whole better attitude,” said longtime Louisiana Lighthouse worker Nelson Demolle. “There are people who have nothing wrong with them who won’t get out and work, but here I have a disability, but I want to work. When you are working, it makes you feel better about yourself. I don’t want to depend on the government for the rest of my life.”
Back in Washington, the Senate Armed Services Committee website proudly reports that it has finished committee work on the defense bill. In big print, that Web page features only one other block of text. “Disability Access,” it boasts. The Senate, in its final version of the bill, must live up to that promise.
New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he blogs at blogs. theadvocate.com/quin-essential.