Braille Monitor March 1986
by James Gashel
Many groups report that they have done this or that which has resulted in this or that. It is typical of the American Council of the Blind, for example, to allege that its actions resulted in a particular outcome that is claimed to be beneficial to the blind. But if asked to prove up on their involvement, it would be hard to document because there is no trail of evidence to show the involvement and perhaps no actual involvement either.
All of which leads naturally to something else. Early in 1984, just after the General Services Administration (GSA) had solicited public bids from commercial fast-food companies who would be interested in setting up shop in federal buildings, we went to Congress to put a stop to it. Among other things, Sandy Sanderson and I sat down for a visit with Senator Ted Stevens who represents Alaska in the Senate of the United States. Sandy Sanderson is President of the NFB of Alaska.
Why Senator Stevens? Why not? He is Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Civil Service, Post Office, and General Services. His subcommittee has jurisdiction over the conduct and operation of GSA. It also has certain responsibilities for monitoring the administration of federal laws having to do with the management of public buildings and public contracts.
Senator Stevens was interested, but he was faced with a packed agenda. Chairing the Subcommittee on Civil Service, Post Office, and General Services is only a small part of his total Senate responsibilities. Senator Stevens also chairs a Merchant Marine subcommittee and a subcommittee on Appropriations for the Department of Defense. He serves on five full committees, eight subcommittees, and chairs three subcommittees in all. So we decided to be patient.
Meanwhile, by threatening a public protest and by gathering Congressional opposition to the plan, we held off GSA's attempt to place a commercial fast food operation in their headquarters building in Washington in violation of the spirit (and probably the letter) of the Randolph-Sheppard Act.
All along we have suggested that an oversight hearing in Congress would be helpful in curbing attempted abuses or violations of the Randolph-Sheppard Act. In addition to passing laws, Congress can control or restrain the actions of federal agencies by asking them to come to Capitol Hill for an on-the-record formal hearing. This is called "oversight." It is a technique which can be used very effectively when Congress wants to influence federal policy or discipline an agency or one of its officials.
Just as our national convention was getting underway in Louisville, last July, I received information to the effect that Senator Stevens might now be in a position to entertain favorably a formal request for an oversight hearing on the fast-food and related issues in Randolph-Sheppard. So when the convention closed and we returned home to pick up other business, off went the request to Senator Stevens.
July 18, 1985
The Honorable Ted Stevens
Chairman Subcommittee on Civil Service,
Post Office, and General Services Committee
on Governmental Affairs United States Senate
Dear Mr. Chairman: I am well aware of the interest you have expressed in efforts to improve business opportunities for blind vendors in public buildings. This letter is to ask you to consider scheduling an over site hearing by your Subcommittee on Civil Service, Post Office, and General Services.
The purpose of such a hearing would be to determine what efforts are now being made by federal property managing agencies to promote full compliance with the letter and the spirit of the Randolph-Sheppard Act. That act, amended last in 1974, gives blind persons priority in the operation of vending facilities on all federal property. But despite the priority, the number of vending facility opportunities for blind vendors has not grown as Congress intended.
With some notable exceptions, federal property managing agencies still tend to view the blind vendor as the proprietor of a small lobby stand, selling cigarettes, candy, gum, newspapers, and a few magazines. The law, itself, once encouraged this image. But in 1974, Congress removed certain pre-existing restrictions and greatly expanded the former definition of "vending stand" into a new concept of a "vending facility." The new term was aimed at giving blind people the opportunity to operate full-line cafeteria type food services and other more complex businesses on federal property.
Although the Congressionally mandated priority for the blind is clearly intended to expand the number and type of vending facilities operated by the blind, some discretionary policies of federal property managers are in direct contravention of this goal. For example, you are aware of GSA's attempt to install fast-food restaurants in federal buildings through contracts with large, multi-state, nationally recognized chains. No opportunity was first presented to blind vendors or their licensing agencies. Yet it is clear that blind people can provide the type of service that GSA wanted.
You are also aware of the policy which GSA has on extending cafeteria contracts without applying the priority for blind vendors. Under this policy, if a contract for a federal cafeteria is awarded to a non-blind food service operator, the priority for a blind vendor to operate the cafeteria cannot be exercised for as long as fifteen years. The contract's initial term is only five years. But on top of that, GSA allows two non-competitive extensions of five years each. That policy effectively blocks application of the blind priority for each cafeteria site except for once every fifteen years. Then GSA officials often complain that they are unable to determine the capabilities of blind vendors or state agencies to assume operation of federal cafeterias. No wonder!
There are several other issues that could be explored in an oversight hearing. Without cataloging them, I will mention just one more in addition to those I have discussed. This refers to a practice of the United States Postal Service to limit blind vendors to lobby stand locations while contracting with non-blind commercial firms for vending machine services in work areas serving employees. This, too, holds down growth of the blind vendor program in the face of Congressional intent to expand it.
The problems I have described do not represent statutory weaknesses in the Randolph-Sheppard Act. Rather, federal property managers need to become more committed to the goal of expanding the number and type of opportunities they offer to blind vendors. Congress can best help with this by giving some direction periodically through exercise of the oversight function. Therefore, I hope you will consider lending your leadership to such an effort. I am firmly convinced that the current circumstances and disturbing trends in the blind vending program need competent, responsible Congressional attention. This is why we have come to you with a specific request for help at this time. Thank you for your consideration.
Cordially yours, James Gashel Director of Governmental Affairs National Federation of the Blind
On October 4, 1985, the oversight hearing was held by Senator Stevens' subcommittee in the main committee hearing room for the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. There were sixty or more Federationists on hand. Federal government witnesses included Mrs. Madeleine Will, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, at the United States Department of Education, and Wolfgang Zoellner, Assistant Commissioner for Buildings Management at GSA. Sandy Sanderson appeared to report on problems in obtaining GSA cooperation in assigning federal cafeterias to the Alaska Blind Vending Program. I then presented an overview of the national picture, arguing for changes in the Department of Education's federal regulations for the blind vendor program and for other changes to be made in GSA's policies. U.S. Representative Don Young, who serves in the House of Representatives, representing Alaska, also gave a forceful statement of support for the blind vendors.
The main theme of the hearing was to focus on the conditions which are still blocking the advancement of blind vendors into the federal cafeteria market. First off, GSA prefers to have the option of requiring state agencies for the blind to bid competitively for cafeterias against all interested commercial firms. We say that practice is an affront to the Randolph-Sheppard Act. But regulations of the Department of Education, which govern the blind vendor program at the federal level, actually permit the competitive bidding procedure. Those regulations should be changed.
Another policy of GSA virtually assures that once a federal cafeteria has been placed in commercial hands, there will not be an opportunity for a blind vendor to take over the business for as long as fifteen years. GSA's cafeteria contracts are issued with a five-year initial term. Then the contractor and the government may agree to have two five-year extensions. When that policy was explained to him, Senator Stevens, who was presiding over the hearing, said in his opinion (and he is a lawyer with a law degree from Harvard) that the automatic extensions disregard the blind vendor priority and violate the Randolph-Sheppard Act. Then he asked for the legal opinion of GSA's attorneys. It was not available but promised.
Something else which turned out not to be available was a consultant's report allegedly from the early 1970s. It is this report which GSA cites as justification for the contract extension policy on cafeterias. Mysteriously, the report is missing or so it seems. Anyway, when asked to provide a copy of the consultant's report for the hearing record, GSA could do no better than to promise to make another search for it. Later, I explained that even if the alleged report ever existed, which it may have, its recommendations would be faulty since Congress changed the cafeteria priority and other provisions of the Randolph-Sheppard Act after the report was supposedly completed. So be it.
Senator Stevens listened carefully throughout the hearing. He asked very probing questions of the federal witnesses, and the answers were not often to his liking. There will now be follow-up correspondence and probably meetings to insure that substantive changes are made to improve observance of the blind priority. One point came through loud and clear: There are too many government bureaucrats and government agencies involved in trying to promote their conflicting interests in the blind vendor program. Senator Stevens understands this and summed up the hearing by recommending a possible new direction of flexibility. He was concerned that the state agencies may not be responsive. His comments speak for themselves:
. . . it does appear that the Randolph-Sheppard Act may need revision in terms of dealing with a state which, through its licensing agency, is less than responsive to the basic policy of the Randolph-Sheppard Act in assisting blind people to be able to carry out the priority that is available to them under that Act.
That, unfortunately, as hinted at by Sandy, as far as our own state is concerned, I will have to talk with them about that, Sandy. But beyond that, it does seem that there ought to be the power of the GSA to deal directly with a qualified blind vendor without having the necessity to have another government entity involved, namely, the state licensing agency.
If that were done, as I understand this Act, and I have just been reviewing the 1974 Amendments, those clearly inject into the whole operation under this Act the state licensing agency's responsibilities.
I am quoting now from this report that was filed by Senator Randolph in 1974. He said, "These include cooperation with the Secretary of HEW in selecting satisfactory sites for vending facilities; provision for the submission of blind licensee grievances to a full evidentiary hearing; establishment of a retirement, health insurance, sick leave and vacation system with set-aside funds, after a majority vote for such system by licensees, who are to have full information on such proposed system; limitation on the use of vending machine income assigned to the State agency to pension, health and leave purposes and reduction of assessments against blind licensees for set-aside purposes where there is remaining vending machine income for such purposes; provision of access to all relevant program financial data to blind licensees ; conduct of a biennial election for a committee of blind vendors, which shall participate in the State program's administrative, policy, and program development decisions, training programs, and instructional meetings for blind licensees; and report to the Secretary on implementation of the provision requiring uniform accounting procedures, licensee income distribution, use of set-aside funds and selection and establishment of facilities."
It may be that the 1974 Act imposed such broad-ranging responsibilities on the state licensees that they are reluctant to get involved, particularly in a state like ours, Sandy, where you only have three or four potential places to operate under. I think that has to be examined, because for a state to undertake all those responsibilities, it is going to be a considerable number of people for the vocational rehabilitation agency.
Mr. Gashel: Mr. Chairman, may I just comment on what you are saying? I think what you are bringing out here is a very excellent point, because the vendors are really the subjects of bureaucratic agencies that are really, in many cases, not business managers, either. They are rehabilitation workers, a lot of times, they don't understand how you go out and make a buck in the world.
They are state entities. They are entities in the government, and also in the federal government . . .
Senator Stevens: Jim, I think you ought to take a look at the problem. When I was with the Interior Department, we had all kinds of problems with the individual concessionaires in National Parks. We assisted in the formation of the National Parks Concessions, Incorporated. It was a corporation that handles many of the functions for parks concessionaires that would be beyond the capability of the small concessionaire, and through a national organization, they have been able to extend their concession operations to almost every park in the country. What I am suggesting to you is maybe the National Federation of the Blind should have a blind vendor's contracting corporation, and it could be a nonprofit corporation, and take on this whole question of the burdens that were imposed by the 1974 Act on the state agencies. We may not need the state agencies in this at all. After all, they are federal properties. (Applause.)
Mr. Gashel: I think if GSA would cooperate in that, I think we would be inclined to do it.
Senator Stevens: I am going to look into it and see if that is possible under existing law. If it is not, I will suggest that to the Department of Labor and to the Labor Committee and to the Department of Education and get their response.
I think you two have got our attention, and we will follow up on it. So we thank you very much, Sandy. Mr. Sanderson: Thank you very much. Senator Stevens: You have to come a long way down to see me every time you come. I know. I will be seeing you in a couple of weeks up there. Thank you very much.
Mr. Sanderson: Thank you so much.
Now speaking of who does what, it will be interesting to read what account (if any) may appear about this hearing in the pages of the American Council's Braille Forum. ACB had a representative from its national staff at the hearing (at least one), but he was a member of the audience. His lone presence merely added to our numbers. I do not know if he applauded at Senator Stevens' remark that the state agencies might well be removed from the program, but it makes little difference. Clearly, the National Federation of the Blind is the strongest, most active force at work today on behalf of blind vendors. Of course, we would welcome the participation of the American Council of the Blind in a constructive way to promote the interests of the blind. But until that happens we will go it alone and continue to be the strong voice that we are on behalf of the vendors. This, again, is why we have formed the National Federation of the Blind.